But President Joe Biden — whose climate change initiatives in his social spending package face an uncertain future in the Senate — has more immediate political problems, including that high gas prices and inflation have eaten into his political power.
The existential threat of our lifetime is running, again, into the political realities of our democracy. That the clock is ticking to address climate change has been broadcast on repeat, with increasing intensity. But as those alarm bells ring, so do warnings about continued threats to the republic, nearly a year after rioters stormed the US Capitol, as well as threats to American pocketbooks in the thick of the holiday season, thanks to the ongoing pandemic that continues to disrupt so much of the global system and threaten public health. Every day is a dizzying onslaught of headlines drowning out the perpetual threat of climate change until a severe weather event like this weekend’s resurfaces the discussion.
“This is going to be the new normal,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told CNN’s Jake Tapper Sunday, talking about extreme weather in general. “The effects that we’re seeing from climate change are the crisis of our generation.”
To be clear, we don’t know that climate change was responsible for the tornadoes; research on the role that climate change is playing in the formation and intensity of tornadoes is not as robust as for other types of extreme weather like droughts, floods and even hurricanes. But extreme weather is here to stay.
It goes beyond the odd fact of snow in Hawaii this month, but little in Denver. Floods and wildfires are getting worse. The devastation in Kentucky suggests tornadoes could be in the mix.
The solution for the world is cutting down on carbon emissions. The solution for Biden, although he has little control over it, includes lower gas prices. It is an irony of crosscurrents when the President’s political fortunes rest on enabling something shown to affect the climate.
The limits of government
The coronavirus pandemic — the headline that has consumed Americans for much of the past nearly two years — shows just how difficult it is for government to compel behaviors that could alleviate the threat. Among fierce disagreement over vaccine mandates, Americans are going to have to learn to live with the coronavirus, in part because more people won’t get vaccinated on their own. Similarly, Americans may have to learn to live with a more unpredictable and dangerous climate because the wonky federal system is making it extremely difficult to deal with it in a big way.
Biden wants the Environmental Protection Agency to weigh in on the specifics of the climate and tornadoes.
“All that I know is that the intensity of the weather across the board has some impact as a consequence of the warming of the planet and the climate change,” Biden said at the White House Saturday. “The specific impact on these specific storms, I can’t say at this point. I’m going to be asking the EPA and others to take a look at that.”
As CNN’s climate team notes, the short and small scale of tornadoes, along with an extremely spotty and unreliable historical record for them, makes relationships to long-term, human-caused climate change very difficult to pinpoint.
Criswell said tornadoes do occur in December. What’s different in Kentucky is how the tornadoes behaved.
“At this magnitude I don’t think we’ve ever seen one this late in the year,” she said. “But it’s also historic — even the severity and the amount of time these tornadoes spent on the ground is unprecedented.”
A plan that does not yet have the votes
Many elements of Biden’s climate agenda are in the Build Back Better bill, which faces uncertainty on Capitol Hill.
It would invest billions in pushing the use of more clean and renewable energy to meet Biden’s goal of a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035.
It would spend billions more to subsidize Americans buying electric cars and bikes.
The climate portions, pared back to satisfy Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, are wrapped in with unrelated social safety net elements he doesn’t yet support.
Democrats put all their proposals — climate and otherwise — into one single bill to make an end-run around filibustering Republicans and exploit budget rules. It’s a risky strategy that could leave the country without a new climate strategy if Manchin, who represents a state steeped in its history as a coal producer, doesn’t come on board. But in a 50-50 Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris breaks ties, Democrats don’t have any votes to spare, the West Virginia senator has enormous clout.
While working with that narrow margin, Biden must fight the perception that his efforts to remake the social safety net are helping drive up costs. There are signs that supply chain kinks could be easing, and gas prices have already begun to fall, but those realities have not yet entered the public consciousness. The government report that tracks consumer prices registered a 39-year high for inflation when data for November was released Friday.
More than two-thirds of Americans — 69% — disapprove of Biden’s handling of inflation and 57% disapproves of his handling of the economic recovery, according to a new ABC/Ipsos poll.
The threat to democracy
The perceived squeeze on Americans’ pocketbooks already overshadows the climate, but there’s another distraction in the blinking-red threat to American democracy posed by former President Donald Trump and his allies.
The latest revelation: Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff, said in an email that the National Guard would be on hand to “protect pro Trump people” in the leadup to the Capitol insurrection, according to a new contempt report released Sunday night by the House select committee investigating January 6.
The resolution comes after the panel informed Meadows last week that it had “no choice” but to advance criminal contempt proceedings against him given that he had decided to no longer cooperate.
The House earlier pursued a similar effort against Trump’s informal adviser, Steve Bannon. His trial will get under way this summer, putting the high-profile case front-and-center as the 2022 midterm campaign is full swing.
After earlier agreeing to cooperate with the committee, Meadows has clammed up, and sued House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and committee members, asking a federal court to block enforcement of the subpoena the committee issued him as well as the subpoena it issued to Verizon for his phone records.
But the former North Carolina congressman had already handed over about 6,000 pages of documents, including information from his personal email account and personal cell phone, to the committee. That also included a PowerPoint document detailing ways to undermine the count of the 2020 election. A lawyer for Meadows said the former White House chief of staff was the recipient of the 38-page document but did nothing with it, according to the New York Times on Friday. CNN has not independently verified the contents of the PowerPoint.
Getting around the Senate
Democrats want to cram their massive climate change and safety net bill into law using budget rules.
Republicans did the same to pass massive tax cuts in 2017.
To control budget estimates, they push proposals on a temporary basis and then assume Americans won’t want to give up the new perk.
Republicans did that with their tax cuts for individuals, which are technically set to expire in 2025, but expected to be extended for most people. Democrats are following suit with their social spending bill. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said it would cost more than $3 trillion over 10 years if the programs were enacted permanently. Democrats say they will offset the programs in the future.
Wherever the evolving form of American government throws up roadblocks, politicians will ultimately find ways around, but whether it’s fast enough to address climate change is a question whose time has come.