The coronavirus-relief bill racing through Congress contains a fair amount of economic relief as well as a wide array of unrelated measures that were thrown into the bill with little or no public debate. Included in the latter category is something shocking: a huge package of energy reforms that will result in major greenhouse-gas reductions.
How big a deal are the climate provisions? The World Resources Institute has called the bill “one of the most significant pieces of climate legislation that Congress has passed in its history.” Grant Carlisle, a senior policy adviser at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says, “This is perhaps the most significant climate legislation Congress has ever passed.”
To be sure, the “most significant climate legislation Congress has ever passed” designation is a little bit misleading. Congress hasn’t passed much climate legislation. The climate provisions in the coronavirus-relief bill might add up to more than President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill, which included $90 billion in green-energy subsidies and helped seed the boom in wind, solar, batteries, and other tech over the past decade. They likely won’t be as significant as the 1970 Clean Air Act, which created the regulatory authority that does most of the heavy lifting in reducing carbon pollution.
But the amount of good climate policy in this bill is shocking, especially given the fact that it is about to be signed by Donald J. Trump. The major provisions include: a $35 billion investment in new zero-emission energy technology (including solar, wind, nuclear, and carbon-capture storage); an extension of tax credits for wind and solar energy, which were set to expire; and, most significantly, a plan for phasing out hydrofluorocarbons, a small but extremely potent greenhouse gas used as a coolant.
The last item is perhaps the most unexpected. In 2016, the Obama administration committed to an international agreement to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. The Trump administration, as you’d expect, renounced the agreement and then proposed rolling back regulations on HFCs. Instead, the president will sign a bill that would allow the United States to fulfill the terms of the treaty he renounced. A full international HFC phaseout will reduce global warming by nearly one degree Fahrenheit.
How did this remarkable triumph come about? Coral Davenport reports that heating and cooling manufacturers in the United States are already at the front end of switching to efficient new technologies. At least eight states have passed laws mandating HFC reductions, creating a fragmented domestic market. Manufacturers of heating and cooling units prefer a single, strict national standard than a patchwork of lax but variable state-based standards, just like car-makers do. The industry has lobbied for a national standard.
Trump’s opposition made sense from the standpoint of right-wing ideology and the partisan glory of negating an Obama-legacy achievement, but it actually harmed the profitability of American businesses.
The larger lesson here is that, in the modern era, constructive legislation is still possible — as long as the issue stays below the radar. High-profile policy fights tend to become grist for right-wing media, and once Fox News is on the case, there is no such thing as a compromise reasonable enough that it won’t be presented to conservative viewers as a socialist plot. But negotiating issues privately, dumping them into a giant must-pass bill, and passing the whole thing within hours short-circuits the demagoguery cycle. Indeed, it’s unlikely Trump himself has more than a passing familiarity with the broad contours of the bill he is going to sign.
If these climate provisions had not been thrown into a coronavirus-relief bill and Joe Biden had tried to pass the exact same policies two months from now, right-wing media would be aflame with denunciations of his “Green New Deal.” Tucker Carlson would be claiming the bill had been secretly masterminded by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sean Hannity would be decrying the billions in green-energy subsidies, and Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley would be on the capitol lawn spraying hydrofluorocarbons into the air and claiming they represented a cherished element to the lifestyle of Real Americans.
Instead, everybody just got together and crammed it through. American politics may not “work,” exactly, but it does sort of still function.