We’re in a Climate Crisis. Congress Must Go Big on Climate Action Now.

July 8, 2021 | 3:07 pm
National Interagency Fire Center/Flickr
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

Summer has barely begun, and we are faced with intense drought, wave upon wave of extreme heat, the prospect of a terrible wildfire season, an early start to a hurricane season that is projected to be above normal, and flash flooding in the Midwest. We are living in a climate crisis and there is no time to waste to act. Congress must ensure that bold and necessary climate solutions are an integral part of legislation that passes this year. Our health, economy, and future depend on it.   

The climate crisis is here

For decades scientists have been warning us that climate change will take an enormous toll on people and critical ecosystems if we fail to sharply curtail heat-trapping emissions. The future they were warning us about is now here, and it is terrifying.

Already, this year more than 150 people have died from extreme heat in Arizona and the Northwest, and now California and much of the western US are facing the prospect of yet another scorching heat wave. Scientists have just confirmed that the incredible, anomalous recent heatwave in the Pacific Northwest would have been virtually impossible without climate change. The wildfire season is the western US is likely to be catastrophic this year, driven by record-breaking hot, dry conditions. Arizona, California, the Dakotas, Nevada, Oregon, Washington—even Hawaii—have already faced fierce fires. The earliest Atlantic hurricane on record, Elsa, came ashore as a tropical storm and is bringing heavy rainfall from Florida to the Northeast.

These dire realities will only sharpen as summer marches deeper into another sweltering season of heat waves, hurricanes, and fire. Meanwhile, accelerating sea level rise and ocean acidification are slow-moving disasters, poised to unleash profound consequences. Underlying all this is the relentless rise in global average temperatures.

And we can’t forget that the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis are far from over. With all of these crises intersecting, structural racism and inequities have made the toll disproportionately harmful for low-income communities and communities of color.

The time to act is now

We do still have choices: every fraction of a degree of warming we can avoid is crucial. The US has a major role to play, together with the global community, to help limit the global average temperature increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. And Congress has a unique and powerful opportunity right now to put the US firmly on a path to cutting its emissions at least 50-52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Bold, just, and equitable climate action is the surest path to limiting the worst impacts of climate change, protecting communities, and unlocking the tremendous opportunities of an economy powered by clean energy.  

But we have no time to waste. Legislation enacted this year—either as part of a bipartisan infrastructure deal or through a bold investment package that passes through a budget reconciliation process—must include a significant down payment on climate action that guarantees robust reductions in heat-trapping emissions and investments in making our communities and infrastructure more climate resilient. A legislative package that advances the priorities in the American Jobs Plan in a just and equitable way are the kinds of solutions we need and that are supported by both the science and the American public.

We have to go big—for good paying jobs, environmental and economic justice, the climate, and our future. That means a robust scale of investments—on the order of at least $2.1 trillion—in climate-related priorities. It also means ensuring that at least 40 percent of the benefits of these investments must flow directly to communities that have been historically marginalized and underserved, as called for in the Justice40 Initiative advanced by the Biden administration. And it means we must invest in a domestic manufacturing base and supply chains—especially in the clean energy and transportation sectors—that can help create millions of good paying jobs for workers in our country.  

Here’s what UCS experts think Congress should do.

Clean up the power sector

Swiftly cleaning up the power sector is critical to achieving our carbon emissions reduction targets. A rapid shift toward clean energy is already underway but without robust policies it is not happening fast enough, and 60 percent of the nation’s electricity mix still comes from fossil fuels. Congress must act to hasten the transition and secure a clean, affordable, low-carbon, and resilient power supply for people across this nation—all while ensuring that the transition is considerate of the workers and communities adversely impacted by the shift away from fossil fuels.

That means Congress should:

  • Implement robust power sector targets: Set and enforce targets that achieve power sector emissions reductions of 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and 100 percent reductions soon thereafter, designed and funded in such a way as to drive renewables online while minimizing ratepayer impacts.
  • Fully fund clean energy tax incentives: Provide 10-year clean energy tax incentives with full refundability or a direct pay option for new clean energy generation, energy storage capacity, and transmission buildout, with support for robust labor standards.
  • Bolster transmission development and grid modernization: Facilitate transmission expansion and adapt and increase funding for grid modernization programs to enable the rapid integration of high levels of renewable resources while improving the efficiency, reliability, and resiliency of our nation’s electricity system.
  • Facilitate the replacement of polluting resources with clean alternatives: Prioritize the rapid replacement of heavily polluting fossil fuel-fired resources with clean electricity alternatives, including through the accelerated retirement of the remaining coal fleet, the targeted use of clean energy sources to replace dirty “peaker” plants in overburdened communities, and strong support for community-owned clean energy resources.
  • Support a fair transition for fossil fuel workers and communities: Coal workers and communities are already being hurt by the market-driven shift away from coal. As the nation accelerates its transition to clean energy, we cannot leave these workers and communities behind. First and foremost, a fair transition must include five years of income support (to include wage replacement, health care coverage, and continued employer retirement contributions), along with flexible education benefits. (We released a report with the Utility Workers Union of America that estimates the costs of these supports.) It must also include robust support for communities facing the loss of tax revenue and to help them diversify their economies, and a coordinated effort by the federal government to address the complex set of problems facing coal workers and communities.
  • Round out the changes with attention to energy end uses: As Congress acts on cleaning up our electricity supply, it must also act to improve the efficiency of our energy use, by setting strong energy efficiency standards, boosting electrification of energy end uses, and ramping up funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and DOE’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) given the urgent importance of weatherizing buildings to save energy and lower bills while protecting people’s health and safety in the face of rapidly escalating climate impacts.

Electrify our transportation sector

Transportation is the nation’s largest source of carbon emissions. Each new car purchased generally stays on the road for 15 years, so accelerating electric vehicle (EV) adoption today is critical to reaching our climate goals tomorrow. Zero-emission trucks and buses will also significantly reduce dangerous air pollution along trucking corridors and transit routes. To enable this transformation, Congress must:

  • Help transit agencies and school districts buy electric buses: Electric transit and school buses are more expensive than their diesel-fueled counterparts but will eliminate the dangerous air pollution from burning diesel along these routes and for the drivers and passengers. Electric buses are made in the US and are already starting to be deployed in communities across the country. Significant investment in these buses will allow more places across the country to deliver on cleaner air for their residents in the near term.
  • Incentivize EV purchases: Consumers who purchase an electric vehicle are eligible for a $7,500 tax credit to offset the higher upfront cost, but each manufacturer is currently limited in how many credits their customers can take. To accelerate the deployment of EVs, we support extending the credit to make it available for all EV purchases, making it refundable or a point-of-sale rebate, and also incentivizing making these vehicles in the US by employees protected by sound labor standards. We also support an incentive for low- and moderate-income people for the purchase of used EVs.
  • Electrify medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, including at ports: Trucks ranging from delivery vans to tractor trailers can and are being electrified, but there are no federal financial incentives for fleet owners to offset the increased upfront cost of EVs. Additionally, ports are hubs of transportation activity that are fueled by diesel and plagued by the pollution that comes from that. Communities along highway corridors and around ports are disproportionately impacted by dangerous pollution from diesel emissions and frequently, these are communities of color or low-income communities. Robust funding to transition these heavier vehicles to non-polluting electric trucks will help communities most directly affected by diesel pollution.
  • Deploy charging infrastructure: We need charging infrastructure both for passenger cars and trucks and for larger trucks and buses. Ensuring that charging is available along highways, in rural communities, and urban communities, particularly in underserved areas, is critical to successful EV deployment. Investment in charging infrastructure for truck and bus fleets will also be needed to ensure that EVs work in these applications.
  • Invest in domestic manufacturing of EVs: The auto sector is at the heart of America’s manufacturing industry and needs to invest heavily in making EVs and their components in the US to retain our leadership in this sector. The government should fund programs to help companies retool factories and build up electric motor and battery supply chains. Including strong labor standards will secure good-paying jobs to communities across the nation.

Help prepare and protect communities dealing with climate change

No matter how quickly we fix our power sector, transportation sector, and other areas of our economy, people’s lives are being upended by climate change already, and vulnerable communities need smart policies from the federal government to ensure they can prepare and adapt. To truly meet the climate crisis, Congress must invest in:

  • Funding for communities to prepare for and recover from disasters: Robust funding for programs like FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure Communities program (BRIC), which helps support states, Tribes, and municipalities to proactively invest in projects to reduce their risks ahead of disasters, and HUD’s Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery program which can help communities invest in a climate-resilient recovery.
  • Establishing the Civilian Climate Corps: One of the best new ideas in the American Jobs Plan would help people and the planet, creating jobs that make our nation more resilient to climate impacts. Making sure it’s robustly funded is important to ensuring its success.
  • Financing solutions through a Green Bank: Congress should establish a national resilient infrastructure bank similar to that proposed in H.R. 806, the Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator Act. A Green Bank would finance clean energy and climate resilient infrastructure projects, with dedicated investments to benefit underserved and historically marginalized communities.
  • Investing in public health protections for communities and workers coping with extreme heat, wildfires, flooding, intensifying storms, and other harmful climate impacts.

Build a resilient and equitable food and farm system

An often-overlooked sector of our economy, agriculture generates its own carbon emissions yet also presents a major opportunity to help solve the climate crisis while simultaneously building a food and farm system that is sustainable and equitable. Congress must:

  • Expand and strengthen existing working lands conservation programs to better address climate and equity goals. Agricultural soil carbon is a critically important tool in battling the climate crisis. There are more than 897 million acres of US farmland, each acre an opportunity to create a more resilient, sustainable food system, if we make the right investments. USDA working lands programs—in particular, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)—are immensely popular among farmers and ranchers and frequently oversubscribed. Because CSP and EQIP are familiar to farmers and ranchers and already encourage the adoption of many practices that can help farmers mitigate and adapt to climate change, small adjustments and strategic funding investments in these existing programs offer the best and most immediately actionable opportunities for the USDA to equitably tackle the climate crisis.
  • Reprioritize USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics mission area to incorporate and invest in more climate research. There is an urgent need to increase public funding for agricultural and food research and to reprioritize USDA research investments to increasingly address climate change mitigation and adaptation, especially through interdisciplinary and systems approaches and agroecological theories and concepts. Congress should expand and enhance existing grant programs—including the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, and the Organic Transitions Program—as well as other research-focused efforts including the USDA Climate Hubs, the Long-Term Agroecosystem Network, and the National Agroforestry Center.
  • Strengthen support for historically marginalized communities in agriculture. Longstanding structural and institutional racism has excluded Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) from access to land, financial resources, information, political standing, and educational and professional trajectories, which limits their ability to shape the food system. This, in turn, impacts the ability of BIPOC farmers to adapt to the climate crisis. Congress should follow BIPOC-led legislation, such as the Justice for Black Farmers Act (S. 300), and should also work to ensure that USDA technical assistance directly supports BIPOC farmers and that USDA allocates resources to conduct targeted outreach to BIPOC and other socially disadvantaged producers.

Congress must act on climate now

This is a unique, long-awaited, and all-too-rare moment for policy action on the grave and worsening climate crisis—and Congress must live up to its responsibilities now. Yes, we can solve the climate crisis, together with the crises of income inequality and environmental injustice that are so harmful to people in our nation. It will take leadership and deep commitment from Congress. Please join us in reaching out to your elected representatives in Congress and urging them to be true leaders and enacting a bold, just and equitable legislative package on climate now. Anything less would be a failure that will haunt us, our children, and our grandchildren now and in the decades to come.

Kate Cell, Kristina Dahl, Jonna Hamilton, Mike Lavender, Julie McNamara, Jeremy Richardson, and Erika Spanger-Siegfried contributed to this post.