The climate emergency and political paralysis in the US

President Biden meeting Republican lawmakers in the Oval Office

By Martin Woodley

There can scarcely be a more emblematic demonstration of global warming that continues to ravage many areas simultaneously including Greece, Siberia, India, Pakistan. In Pakistan’s Sindh province the combination of heat and humidity briefly passed a threshold which the human body cannot withstand. This threshold has been passed “decades ahead of predictions from climate change models”, and researchers are “virtually certain” that warming from greenhouse gas emissions have played a pivotal role.

At the moment there is a widespread heatwave afflicting many regions of the world, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

However, as could be expected, the Western media have especially obsessed about the heatwave affecting the Pacific Northwest of Northern America. And given both the severity of the conditions and the stated aim of the incoming Biden administration of putting the climate emergency at the centre of its agenda, what we see is the grip of a political paralysis increasingly taking hold.

First, a discussion of the severity of the Northern American heatwave will be given followed by an analysis of the paralysis facing the administration as it tries to negotiate the inter and intra party divisions in Congress.

Heat wave in North America

At the time of writing there could be as much as 719 deaths attributable to the temperature so far in British Columbia alone. As of 2 July, officials in Washington state attribute 30 deaths and Oregon state officials attribute 79 deaths since the heatwave started on 25 June.

According to the Washington Post the seven warmest years since accurate records have been kept have been the last seven years, and 19 of the warmest 20 years have all occurred since 2000. On 28 June The New York Times published an article outlining scientific evidence on the growing magnitude of the temperatures and on the lengthening of the heatwave season:

“According to the 2018 National Climate Assessment, a scientific report by 13 U.S. federal agencies, heat waves have climbed from two per year in the 1960s to six per year by the 2010s. The season for heat waves has also grown 45 days longer than it was in the 1960s, the report notes.”

On the 29 June The New York Times published an alarming analysis about the severity of the temperature induced situation. Figures 2, 3 and 4 show temperatures for the previous three days compared to daily maximum temperatures between 1979 and 2021 for Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. The high temperatures melted power cables and so shut down the Portland Streetcar Service and the city’s MAX Light Rail Service.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

After temperatures reached 49.6 in Lytton, British Columbia on 30 June wildfires completely destroyed the village. Drought conditions in every drought category in the Western United States have been reported to be “at its most expansive and intense in the 21st Century” as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5

The epoch defining character of these drought conditions have been reported in The Washington Post on 16 April:

“A vast region of the western United States, extending from California, Arizona and New Mexico north to Oregon and Idaho, is in the grips of the first climate change-induced megadrought observed in the past 1,200 years, a study shows. The finding means the phenomenon is no longer a threat for millions to worry about in the future, but is already here.

The study, published in the journal Science on Thursday, compares modern soil moisture data with historical records gleaned from tree rings, and finds that when compared with all droughts seen since the year 800 across western North America, the 19-year drought that began in 2000 and continued through 2018 (this drought is still ongoing, though the study’s data is analyzed through 2018) was worse than almost all other megadroughts in this region.”

Biden infrastructure plan

On the 31 March The New York Times hailed Biden’s $2 Trillion infrastructure plan as a “transformational effort” to create, in Biden’s words, “the most resilient,  innovative economy in the world “, which would accelerate the fight against climate change by “hastening the shift to new, cleaner energy sources “, by creating federal a mandate requiring that a certain proportion of electricity be generated by renewable sources.

“The costs would be offset by increased corporate tax revenues raised over 15 years, particularly from multinationals that earn and book profits overseas. The president cast those increases as a means to prod companies into investing and producing more in the United States.

The spending in the plan would take place over eight years, the president said, and the tax increases would more than offset that spending in 15 years, leading to an eventual reduction of the budget deficit.”

Taken together with the coronavirus relief bill this has inaugurated a major transformation in the attitude of government to federal spending, ending decades of stagnation – essentially announcing the end of neoliberalism. However, this transformation in the attitude of the administration has yet to win acceptance in Congress.

The infrastructure proposal was intended to be stage one of a two stage plan to “overhaul the economy and remake American capitalism” – initially estimated at $4 Trillion over ten years. Stage two was proposed to be funded through wealth taxes. This is where the problems start.

The Republicans have an aversion to tax rises, especially on corporations and on the wealthy. Secondly, they have an aversion to federal spending, preferring to incentivise the private sector to make investments. This wouldn’t matter except for the fact that very many Democrats share the same aversions. Therefore to pass legislation in the Senate the administration needs at least ten Republicans to vote with a united Democrat caucus in order to overcome the Senate filibuster. In particular, right wing Democrat senators have made it clear that they will not back a proposal that doesn’t have bipartisan support, and neither will they countenance abolition of the filibuster.

In order to negotiate a route to passing an infrastructure plan the administration embarked on a series of negotiations, at first with Republican senators and upon that failure, with a bipartisan group of Republicans and right wing Democrats. These latter negotiations were successful and a proposal was announced with much fanfare. However, it “abandons just about every major Biden idea for combating global warming”, as was reported in The New York Times here and here. Moreover, it aims to finance infrastructure spending by budget cuts in other areas, such as social security instead of raising the rate of corporation taxes. In fact, the funding proposals have been called a “daydream” by The Washington Post.

In order to progress his agenda, Biden announced that he intended to pair the compromise deal with a separate bill aimed at realising Biden’s stage two program through the process of budget reconciliation. This provoked a backlash from Republicans who announced that they would not support the compromise deal if the stage two plan was also tabled. Biden reversed his intention to put the stage two bill, which then provoked a revolt among progressive Democrats who threatened to vote against the compromise deal if it is not accompanied by the stage two bill.

The Congressional paralysis being exhibited is not limited to Biden’s infrastructure proposals, but has dogged the entire legislative agenda leading to a failure to pass legislation on gun control and voting rights, and the coronavirus relief bill passed without a single Republican voting in favour in either chamber, and this is despite notable reforms being stripped out to appease right wing Democrat senators.

Yet the political paralysis belies the real opinions of the electorate. For instance, according to a survey by the Pew Research Centre majorities across a broad range of demographics think that no cuts should be made to social security (Figure 6), and more than 3 out of every 5 voters support raising corporation taxes to pay for the infrastructure plan – even 42% of Republican voters believe in raising corporation taxes (Figure 7).

Figure 6

Figure 7

So, in a very real sense, progressives in Congress are seen to be more representative of the opinions of the electorate than Congress as a whole on a question that potentially has enormous impact on the climate emergency, which is itself manifesting in such a dramatic way.

The paralysis currently on display – born of an attachment of the administration and right wing Democrats to a bipartisan approach which has yielded exactly nothing except for anti China cold war legislation – is a grim warning to the rest of the Biden agenda. But more importantly it illustrates that bipartisanship used as a weapon against the left is a block on all social progress.