How America's Political System Stalls Climate Progress

How America's Political System Stalls Climate Progress

The US is a massive carbon polluter but only ranked 55th globally on climate policy: a big mismatch. Most recently, President Biden's Build Back Better bill has been stuck at a standstill after West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has made $4.5 million from coal since becoming a senator, said he wouldn’t vote for the package. As Naomi Osaka writes for Grist: "The US is within reach of passing climate policy, but perilously close to falling short. So what makes climate progress -- especially through policy -- so difficult in the US?

1. Double representation: The fossil fuel industry has allies on both sides of the aisle, with labor unions on the left and business on the right (although some labor unions are organizing to be part of a renewable energy future).

2. Presidential system of government: The two-party system itself is part of what ties things up. Since the two parties often operate as opposing teams -- the two branches of government can be at odds with each other's agenda.

3. Blocking change is easier than making change: US politics is full of veto points and has more chances than other democracies to stop new policies. When it comes to climate, Congress, Supreme Court rulings, and executive orders have blocked attempts at policy change.

4. Disproportionate, geography-bound Congressional representation: With every state granted two senators, states with fewer people carry equal representation as states with larger populations. When it comes to states like Wyoming or the Dakotas with small populations and large oil and gas reserves, that outsize weight can translate to stalled climate policy.

MSNBC: Breaking Down The Build Back Better Bill And How It Helps You, Decmber 8, 2021.

Why This Matters

The US is the biggest contributor to carbon emissions by a long shot, so how the country handles climate policy matters. Since Congress started seriously considering climate action decades ago, it has been unable to pass meaningful legislation at the scale needed -- in 1993, a senator from West Virginia blocked a carbon tax, and subsequent national climate policy from the Kyoto Protocol to cap-and-trade packages have failed to become law. While the US system has factors that can make climate progress a challenge, the same factors may also provide opportunities that don’t exist in other countries.

"There's a capacity for transformative change that there may not be in other countries," Matto Mildenberger, a professor of political science at the UC Santa Barbara, told Grist. "It's just hard to get that recipe right.

What's Next for Build Back Better

The $1.7 trillion climate and social infrastructure bill is currently in a holding pattern as the House of Representatives gets back to work in 2022. Reaching a 50% emissions reduction by the end of the decade, as the Biden Administration promised, would be a "herculean task" without the bill's energy and transportation funding, E&E writes. And the bill has an uphill battle. Not only did Sen. Manchin retract his counteroffer from last year, Democrats seem unlikely to break the bill into smaller pieces, and the annual federal spending deadline is approaching next month.

Washington Post: Biden's full speech on voting rights, January 11, 2022.

MSNBC: Lawrence O'Donnell and Rachel Maddow - Biden's Putting The Pressure Of History On Manchin And Sinema, Jan 11, 2022.