On September 10, when progressive activists and legislators held a rally in support of the Democratic budget proposal, also known as the reconciliation bill, their message was clear –passing the reconciliation bill was not only an important step in the fight against climate change, but a necessary one.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
That is not to say the entire bill is horrible. In fact, portions of it, particularly its pro-nuclear provisions, ought to be lauded. However, as a whole the budget proposal is an exercise in performative environmentalism, measuring success not in carbon reduced or ecosystems maintained, but in programs created and dollars spent.
Headlining much of the discussion around the bill, and epitomizing many of its problems, is the Civilian Climate Corps (CCC). Modeled after the New Deal era Civilian Conservation Corps, this new CCC would “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers” to protect public lands and tackle climate change, while apparently creating thousands of new jobs in the process.
Unfortunately, this rosy ideal simply doesn’t comport with reality. One of the major issues that the CCC exists to address, the maintenance of public lands, has already been tackled. Last year, a bipartisan group of legislators passed the Great American Outdoors Act, directing $9 billion to alleviate massive maintenance backlogs that organizations such as the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management were facing. Creating an entirely new agency, like the Civilian Climate Corps, to solve a problem we addressed 18 months ago isn’t merely an example of government excess – it’s the dictionary definition.
Another touted policy included in the reconciliation bill is the Clean Energy Payment Program (“CEPP”), a carrot-and-stick policy aimed at decarbonizing our electric grid. The basics of the program are rather simple – electricity suppliers would be expected to boost clean energy output by 4% every year, and decarbonization greater than that would be rewarded through tax breaks, while failing to hit the mark would incur fines.
The problem with CEPP is twofold. As a simple, practical matter, there are serious questions as to whether the program’s ambitious goal of 80% clean energy by 2030 is feasible. Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electricity provider and an industry leader in decarbonization, anticipates only cutting emissions in half by 2030. In fact, this 50% goal is largely agreed upon across the board, with other industry leaders and even the International Energy Agency setting similar goals. Creating impractical energy standards helps no one and will only serve to pass off the cost of inevitable fines to consumers.
This doe-eyed dogmatism rears its ugly head in the CEPP’s other major problem – its unfair treatment of natural gas. By drawing a sharp line between carbon-neutral and non-carbon-neutral energy sources, the Payment Program fails to recognize the usefulness of natural gas as a bridge fuel, instead equating it with the much dirtier coal power. Natural gas emits 33% less carbon emissions than coal, and our switch from coal power to natural gas was responsible for 60% of our emissions reduction between 2005 and 2015. However, the Payment Program offers no incentives for making the switch, instead choosing to penalize the two power sources equally. If we are to effectively fight climate change, there is no reason we should be eschewing major ways to reduce emissions. Unfortunately, in pursuit of the perfect energy policy, the reconciliation bill does just that.
Climate change is one of the most significant problems facing us in the 21st century, and crafting a policy to combat it ought to be a major goal for any administration. However, that does not erase the gaping problems found in the reconciliation bill, nor does it justify them. To fight climate change, Congress needs to cast aside these massive bills that create more wasteful programs and ultimately accomplish little, and instead focus on tailored, effective legislation that takes a pragmatic approach to the clean energy transition.
Isaac Humrich is studying political science at Arizona State University. He is a member of the American Conservation Coalition.