A reporter recently asked me what the next big piece of climate legislation would ideally include. Great question, right? With the help of my colleagues across the Climate & Energy and Clean Transportation programs at UCS, I’ve started a wish list!
Yes, over the past year, Congress has made unprecedented investments in our climate future. The largest of these investments has been the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which includes hundreds of billions of dollars in funding for clean energy, though the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) also includes funding for building climate resilience. Those investments were hard won and are already starting to benefit the US economy and the nation’s clean energy infrastructure, particularly in Southeast states and GOP congressional districts.
The U.S. is in a critical moment when it comes to the preservation and implementation of these two historic bills because, while imperfect and insufficient on their own, they are central to meeting our country’s climate goals of reducing national emissions by at least 50-52% by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2050. They are also under a barrage of attacks, even as people across the country are enduring a brutal summer of heat, wildfires, smoke, and flooding. But if this Danger Season has shown us anything, it’s that we remain unprepared for the types of hazards that come along with a warming world.
And so even as UCS and other climate advocates push for the equitable and effective implementation of the IRA and IIJA, we also need to be thinking about our next big steps: Steps that can fill the gaps that still remain; steps that address the need to build climate resilience head on; steps that go beyond U.S. borders; and steps that align our systems and infrastructure with the realities of climate change.
A different–and more bipartisan–process and a different focus. The IRA was passed through the narrow process of reconciliation, and it was passed by a narrowly divided Congress. As a result, it is focused largely on financial incentives and investments in existing programs and ideas, all of which are critically important. Even the name–the Inflation Reduction Act–reflects the unfortunate lack of bipartisan commitment to investments purely in climate and clean energy solutions. Ideally, the next phase of federal climate action would have a broader focus, based on a shared and bipartisan understanding that climate change is already here and already affecting people’s lives and livelihoods. This phase should also center the voices and perspectives of those hit hardest by climate change, including communities of color and those who live in poverty, so that our investments in resilience are equitable.
Ramp up and modernize funding for adaptation. The 4th National Climate Assessment (NCA) estimates that the cost of adapting to climate change in the US ranges from tens to hundreds of billions of dollars per year. But studies consistently show those investments save money in the long run. Some estimates indicate that every $1 of federal grants invested in adaptation results in $6 in future avoided costs. Those are investments we need to be making now given estimates, also from the NCA, that annual losses from climate change could be in the hundreds of billions of dollars range by midcentury. While recent allocations of funding for climate resilience in water-constrained and coastal communities, for example, are encouraging, their scale is utterly inadequate.
Ideally, the next phase of federal climate action would invest in relieving the kind of suffering that has plagued frontline and environmental justice communities for years, and is now spreading across the country: the loss of lives and homes during extreme weather events, the health risks posed by heat waves and wildfires, etc. Ideally, we’d see investments that would allow communities to get out ahead of disasters rather than struggling to survive in the aftermath. We’d also want to see an equitable and just framework for assisting people and communities navigating displacement and relocation due to climate change, with funding commensurate to the scale of the problem lying ahead.
Establish economywide and sector-specific decarbonization targets and timelines. The climate pieces of the IRA were overwhelmingly comprised of things to ease uptake—incentives, tax credits, loans, etc. While that means enormous potential, the uptake is ultimately optional. That leaves some major climate mitigation gaps, alongside gaps in coverage. Ideally, the next phase would establish mandatory economywide and sector-specific decarbonization targets and timelines to get all actors pulling in the same direction. When the goal is zero emissions, you can’t have any backwaters enabling laggards to lag. We need to set actual standards and require change.
Baseline standards for the built environment that actively incorporate future climate impacts. In other words, we need to make sure that when we are building new infrastructure or upgrading existing infrastructure, we’re building to standards that consider the future climate. If the infrastructure investments and decisions we make today aren’t explicitly considering future climate change, we’re at risk of spending billions of dollars on projects that aren’t built to last. So while the IRA provides incentives for progress, we also need to be setting these sorts of standards and enforcing them rather than simply incentivizing them. Such investments will pay off: According to a Biden administration initiative to modernize building codes, “communities that have adopted modern building codes are already saving an estimated $1.6 billion per year in avoided damage from major hazards.”
Investments in international climate finance at a level that reflects the US’s role as a relatively rich country and the largest emitter of heat-trapping gases historically. This next phase of federal climate action would not just address domestic climate challenges, but also recognize our responsibility to low- and middle-income countries. Ideally, we’d see a sizeable down payment on the US’s responsibility to provide international climate finance to enable a low carbon transition and climate adaptation globally, as well as a commitment to reform the international finance system for climate action. As part of this next phase, we’d also address climate loss and damage in low- and middle-income countries in a meaningful way. While the Biden administration pledged to contribute $11.4 billion annually to funds to the international Green Climate Fund by 2024, the U.S. is a long way off from meeting that goal.
More funding for charging infrastructure, particularly for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. Heavy-duty vehicles such as city buses, garbage trucks, and tractor trailers generate more than a quarter of total global warming emissions from transportation despite making up only 10% of vehicles on the road. Heavy-duty trucks are a source of tailpipe pollution that contributes to various public health issues, and historically, low-income communities and communities of color have been disproportionately affected by emissions from these vehicles. An ideal next piece of legislation would make additional federal investments to support charging infrastructure for electric medium- and heavy-duty vehicles to further spur the adoption of these vehicles. Funding for charging to serve long-haul electric trucking on interstate and primary freight routes would be particularly important.
Improving transportation options with additional investment in transit. An important part of achieving a clean and equitable transportation system is ensuring clean mobility options for people in all kinds of communities. Along the lines of a bill introduced in the last Congress by Representative Hank Johnson, the next phase of federal climate legislation would ideally provide funds to support transit system operating budgets. This could help transit agencies facing budget shortfalls and rapidly expand transit in both rural and urban places.
Accountability for Justice40 implementation. Ensuring that the federal government makes good on the Biden Administration’s Justice40 pledge–that at least 40% of the benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution–will require more support for tracking and monitoring.
Accountability for fossil fuel companies whose products have directly contributed to enormous climate harms, and who have long obstructed progress on climate action. Congress should hold them responsible through hearings, requiring robust climate risk disclosure, and passing legislation to make polluters pay for damages.
New cross-agency structures for a comprehensive approach to climate resilience that maximizes benefits for frontline communities. There is good work, and lots of it, happening within federal agencies to move toward climate resilience. But the scale at which the federal government is operating is nowhere near sufficient to the task that lies ahead of us, and its efforts need to be better coordinated. To ensure that we’re getting out ahead of disasters rather than repeatedly recovering in their wakes, we desperately need an aggressive, comprehensive, coordinated, cross-agency approach articulated and supported at the federal level. The NCARS bill, if reintroduced in the same form as during last Congress, would go a long way toward ensuring that federal resilience-building efforts were well coordinated.
When it comes to determining whether we’ll be able to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, we’re in a make-or-break decade. Cutting heat-trapping emissions sharply and building true climate resilience as a nation and fostering the growth of such climate action around the world will require a strong implementation of both the IRA and IIJA as well as additional, transformative financial, policy, and structural investments. So, while it’s critical to make the most of the IRA and IIJA by ensuring they withstand partisan attacks and by implementing the hell out of them, it’s also important to think big about what comes next.