Forest fire burning out of control in a pine forest on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation in New Mexico. (Getty Images)
So much smoke will billow up from California wildfires this summer that wines made from local grapes will carry the faint taste of ashes. Hurricanes will smash coastal cities once considered safe from mega-storms. Heat waves will melt streetcar cables in towns previously known for mild summers.
That is, if the recent past, when all of these things actually happened, is any guide.
But summer 2022 will be more than just another uncomfortably hot season of pain: It’s America’s last, best chance to stop the worst impacts of climate change.
The looming midterm elections mean the U.S. likely has just a few short weeks to make a serious move on the climate crisis before a crucial window of opportunity shuts for years, perhaps a decade or longer, with devastating consequences.
“We all know that legislation dies in the heat of summer of an election year,” said Jamal Raad, co-founder of the climate nonprofit Evergreen Action. “We are running out of time.”
Democrats captured the White House, Senate, and House after the 2020 election with a promise to take action. President Joe Biden vowed to slash U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half within a decade and rolled out the most ambitious climate proposal in U.S. history.
But the plan idled while other urgent crises surged: Ukraine, inflation, abortion, voting rights, COVID. Now, Democrats are months away from the all-but-certain loss of at least one chamber of Congress, which would mean losing the power they need to enact a large-scale plan. Republicans seem to have no interest in the kind of climate spending that environmental experts say averting catastrophe will require.
The last time Democrats held this much power was a decade ago—and another decade could easily pass before they’re back in charge again.
Now, during these precious remaining weeks, the party’s primary holdup is a single rich-guy politician from an impoverished coal state who’s personally pocketed millions from the dirty fossil-fuel industry: West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin.
In other words, Manchin is holding the entire planet hostage this summer—while seemingly trying to decide whether humanity’s place on Earth, in its current form, is worth trying to save.
Political experts disagree about the exact cutoff date for Congressional action this summer, after which we will all trundle forward into our horrible future climate doom.
The absolute final deadline for a big climate bill will be the body’s August recess, which starts on Aug. 8, California Democrat Rep. Ro Khanna told VICE News.
“The most urgent thing we need to do is climate,” Khanna said, adding he’s made “significant overtures” to Manchin in hopes of kickstarting talks.
“It would be a catastrophic failure for us to have the House, Senate, and presidency and not be able to deliver on climate,” Khanna said. “The president needs to make this a top priority and he needs to deliver.”
Others say the real deadline is tighter than that.
But Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat from Minnesota, told the Post a proposal really needs to be nailed down by Memorial Day, which marks the end of the current work period.
“It doesn’t get easier the longer we wait,” Smith said.
Manchin torpedoed President Joe Biden’s sweeping Build Back Better plan last December and pronounced the bill “dead” in an infamous interview on FOX News.
That plan featured $555 billion in climate funding to help clean up U.S. electricity plants, decarbonize steel mills and aluminum smelters, and unleash a fleet of electric vehicles.
Manchin claims he’s still open to some form of a deal. But he says he wants an “all of the above” energy plan that also supports oil, gas, and coal. At the same time, he claims he’s trying to bring Republicans on board, in what many on the left see as doomed folly at best, and a pretext to kill time at worst.
Success, at this point, would look like an agreement to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on renewable energy, green transportation, battery science, and green-tech minerals like lithium and cobalt—along with enough support for dirty fossil fuels to win Manchin’s crucial vote in the tied 50-50 Senate.
Democrats are cautiously leaning into the idea of catering to Manchin’s fossil fuel fetish, given that the alternative looks increasingly grim.
Headlong into climate doom
There’s simply no way to sugarcoat how bad failure might be.
Ditching Build Back Better completely, with no replacement, would effectively add 5.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent to the atmosphere by 2030 and kill 25,000 people from just the air pollution alone, according to a recent analysis.
Biden pledged to make the U.S. carbon-neutral by 2050. But the study found that legislative failure would leave Biden’s goals 91 percent unfulfilled.
Compounding that failure over the next decade makes it much more certain that the planet will tip beyond the level of warming that climate scientists call “relatively safe.”
The real-world difference between 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming and 2 degrees Celsius is much, much bigger than those small numbers suggest.
To take just one example: After 1.5 degrees, the world might only lose about 70 to 90 percent of all coral reefs. But after 2 degrees, we’ll lose 99 percent. We’re weeks away from failing to take action to fix this problem because a Maserati-driving coal baron named Joe Manchin, who lives on a yacht, seems to feel that humanity has enjoyed coral reefs long enough.
“If we want to stay within the ‘safe’ limits of climate change, we want to limit the increase to 1.5 C,” Kristina Dahl, principal climate scientist for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told VICE News.
Unfortunately, our odds for staying inside that boundary get lower every week. And if Congress lets the next few years pass without doing anything, those odds of staying under 1.5 C of warming quickly approach zero, Dahl said.
“We already have a very, very slim chance of meeting that goal,” Dahl said. “If the U.S. does not act within the next decade, then that goal is going to slip out of reach.”
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