Reconciliation and the Climate Crisis: Failure Is Not an Option

October 1, 2021
Startup Stock Photos/Pexels
Erika Spanger-Siegfried
Director of Strategic Climate Analytics

One hundred million Americans experienced climate disasters this year. Hundreds of people died in unprecedented heat, the West burned and the East choked on its smoke, and again, we’re running out of letters for hurricanes. It’s like the climate is asking “can you hear me now?” and Congress is studiously ignoring it as they toy with failing, again, to take bold climate action. We cannot let them fail us.


Everyone knows this nightmare: It’s the night before a huge assignment is due and you haven’t attended class for months, you haven’t written a word, you’re in deep trouble, and you have no one to blame but yourself. Right now—with devastating wildfires, heat, and hurricanes, all on a worsening path, and with policymakers doing the leadership equivalent of dorm-room day drinking—is like that nightmare. 

We’re so badly screwed that it’s now a question, not of acing this important class, that won’t happen, but of how fast we cram, how hard we’re willing to push ourselves and, as a result, how much of the situation we can salvage. And Senators on both sides of the aisle want to crack another beer and go to bed.

Unlike this nightmare there’s lots of blame to go around. Much of the blame rests on the fossil fuel industry and the decades it has spent denying climate science, spreading disinformation, downplaying and sowing doubt, to grievous lasting effect. Much of the blame rests on the elected officials who have done that industry’s bidding and repeatedly blocked meaningful action during the years when it would have made all the difference—and here, when it’s evident our climate is skidding off the rails, still do. Thanks to the power- and profit-over-all mindset of these people, we’ll face losses we’ll grieve every day. And of course, blame also rests with many of us who’ve had the knowledge and capacity to do more and have instead favored the status quo and the lifestyles it affords us.

Unlike this nightmare, our failure to pass this test doesn’t mean failing a class, it means—and this is not hyperbole—an end to the world as you and I know it. If we don’t shift this decade onto a track that can arrive at net-zero before 2050, we will lose coastal properties by the hundreds of thousands and interconnected coastal economies. We will lose summers that are safe for outdoor work and play. We will lose cities, vital infrastructure and lives to more monstrous storms and flooding. We will lose species and ecosystems and all they provide. And our children and grandchildren will lose the sense of safety and of possibility we tried to give them when they were small—ask them, they already are— and instead face so much risk and danger. We will lose, we will lose, and we won’t stop losing for decades and centuries to come.

We can’t afford to lose.

Unlike this nightmare, failing this test means failing all future generations, very much including those alive today. If they fail in this moment, our leaders won’t get an earful from their parents, but they will someday get one from their kids and grandkids. It’s only a matter of time and the pace of climate change before many climate obstructionists are begging forgiveness.

Unlike this nightmare, we’re not alone. Quite the contrary, we’re in this together, though many still don’t realize it. We have the potential might of the federal government and our collective tax dollars to help us get through this. We have a many-millions-strong study group and the resources to pull an all-nighter, cramming to pass this climate test.

So how hard are we willing to work in the time we have left? And most immediately, how hard are we willing to push in this reconciliation crisis moment? 

The $3.5 trillion in the investment package is the equivalent of the U.S. brewing a first strong pot of coffee, some fuel for the challenging night of work ahead. Make weak coffee or not enough cups, as some members of Congress are suggesting, and we’ll flag, falter and fail.

We can’t afford to fail. So, to Congress:

For the love of whatever you hold dear, splash some cold water on your faces, grab a cup of coffee from the dining hall, show up in this pass/fail moment, and don’t you dare fail us.