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How Democrats Got Climate Spending in Everything from NASA’s Budget to the CHIPS Act

In the first months of 2019, the fight against climate change was in bad shape. On one side, then-President Donald Trump’s crusade against policies to fight global warming dominated D.C. On the other, climate activists were arguing about whether to back economists’ long-favored solution, the carbon tax, or the fresh cause of an ill-defined Green New Deal.

Into this muddle stepped the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, a newly formed Congressional panel charged with mobilizing the federal government to tackle the issue. The committee’s answer was to do a little bit of many things, from the obvious, like investments in renewables, to the surprising, like policies to address mental health. The result has added up to a lot of everything.

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“People probably didn’t expect us to focus on health and mental health and [Agriculture] and the food system,” says committee chair Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Florida. “[But] that is what the moment required, because climate action is not just the solar panels or removing fossil fuel subsidies.”

Now, nearly four years later as Republicans prepare to take over the House of Representatives and shut it down, the committee is going public with its surprising, sometimes stealthy, successes. In its final report assessing the state of U.S. climate policy, the committee says that more than 300 of its 715 policy recommendations have been enacted—an unusually high success rate for normally wheezy D.C. blue ribbon panels. It’s in part a result of the committee’s nuts and bolts coalition building. But it also reflects how much and how fast the climate conversation has changed: it is now a part of government policies that affect virtually every corner of life.

Anyone who follows climate policy closely knows that there are myriad reports and white papers that outline how the U.S. can cut emissions, and yet no report so clearly laid the groundwork as the report issued by the climate crisis committee in the summer of 2020.

The report aimed to tackle two knotty problems. First, it had to outline a credible path for the U.S. to bring down emissions. That was the easy part. Second, it had to start building a coalition that could enact those policies. For decades, the U.S. had flirted with the idea of passing significant climate legislation, but each attempt was stymied, at least in part, by a lack of public support.

With that in mind, the committee engaged a wide range of experts and stakeholders, from activists to corporate leaders. The committee’s first hearing focused on youth climate activists, who at the time were staging protests at the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats. Labor groups consulted on recommendations that linked climate and jobs, including provisions that provided incentives for making electric vehicles in the U.S. And the committee worked to incorporate environmental justice with climate, recommending that climate investments target historically disadvantaged communities. The 500-plus page report released in the summer of 2020 included a little bit of something for everyone—and helped negotiate key tensions that had blocked legislation in the past. “We helped knit all of these various groups of constituencies together in in common purpose,” says Castor.

At the heart of the report’s recommendations was a landmark investment in clean energy and transport. The committee recommended new and improved tax credits to encourage the deployment in renewable energy and electric vehicles. The final text of what would eventually become the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which devotes some $369 billion to a range of incentives and technologies designed to nudge the U.S. economy off fossil fuels, resulted from negotiations between West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. And, for that reason, they received much of the credit for the U.S. finally passing climate legislation over the summer. But there’s a straight line between the committee’s work and the IRA, which reads as an adaptation of sorts of the report. From “that report sprang the legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act,” Pelosi said in November. Castor joined Manchin, Schumer and two others when Biden signed the bill into law in August.

But, as significant an achievement as it was, the IRA is only one way the committee shaped climate policy. Behind the scenes, committee members worked to incorporate climate considerations into other pieces of legislation that on their face might seem to have nothing to do with climate. Members of the climate crisis committee, which as a select committee can only issue recommendations, took findings from the committee back to the standing committees that actually make legislation and worked to incorporate them, with mixed results.

The CHIPS legislation that was signed into law in August focused on developing U.S. semiconductor manufacturing and also funds clean energy research, a new NASA climate data collection program and research into low-carbon steel. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which became law in 2021, included a range of investments helpful for climate efforts, including improvements to the electric grid. Members have sought to insert climate resilience measures and clean energy provisions into the National Defense Authorization Act, the massive defense spending bill that Congress needs to pass every year, though it remains to be seen whether those provisions will make it into the final version of the bill. “Every piece of legislation, every opportunity we saw, we tried to incorporate some of our recommendations,” says Castor.

Congressional Republicans have said they plan to dismantle the committee when they take over the House of Representatives in January, but Castor suggests that committee’s work incorporating climate into a wide range of legislation will outlast it. She cites a new level of comfort many Democrats have talking about climate in public and representatives increased fluency in the topic. We really have helped people look at their own jurisdiction and understand the climate relevant things that they’re working on,” says Castor.