Politicians, journalists and activists all like to use the phrase “last, best chance” when talking about the climate. As in: The Glasgow climate conference is the world’s last, best chance to avoid terrible climate destruction. Or: The U.S. now faces its last, best chance to address the climate crisis.
It’s a catchy phrase. But it’s a flawed idea.
The ravages of climate change are not a binary, on-or-off issue. Many problems, like increased flooding, wildfires, heat waves and severe storms, have already begun. How much worse they get will be shaped by how aggressively the world acts to slow climate change — both now and in the future. Immediate action can have a larger impact, scientists say, yet future action will not be irrelevant.
“The reason I push back against the ‘last, best hope’ frame is that we need to realize that addressing climate change is simultaneously urgent and a long game,” Nat Keohane, the president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, told me. “We need to greatly accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy, and it is going to take decades.”
It’s true that many experts feel a particular urgency about climate legislation — but the reason is more political than scientific: If Congress does not pass a bill to slow carbon emissions over the next few months, it may not do so for years.
‘Make or break’
In the U.S. today, only one of the two major political parties is worried about climate change — the Democratic Party. Republicans in Congress have opposed almost every major effort to combat change in the 21st century. So have the last two Republican presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Some Republicans say they support certain climate policies, like a carbon tax, but they tend to do so only when the policies are theoretical, not when they are up for a vote.
This opposition is different from the approach taken by many other conservative parties around the world. But there is no sign that Republicans will change their stance anytime soon.
If the U.S. is going to act on the climate in the foreseeable future, it will almost certainly need to be through a Democratic bill, passed along partisan lines in Congress and signed by a Democratic president.
Right now, such a bill is conceivable. Democrats control both chambers of Congress as well as the White House. After 2022, however, Democrats may need to wait years before being in control again. Republicans are very likely to retake the House in the midterm elections. In the Senate, where small, rural states have a lot of power, Republicans enjoy a built-in advantage.
More broadly, the Democratic Party has been losing working-class votes for years and does not seem focused on reversing the trend. Many Democratic politicians continue to favor a socially liberal agenda, with positions that are at least somewhat to the left of public opinion on religion, guns, crime, abortion, immigration, affirmative action and American history, among other issues.
The agenda is strongly supported by the college graduates who run and shape the Democratic Party — but not shared by many working-class voters. And college graduates remain a minority of the electorate, which helps explain why Democratic candidates struggle in so many states and congressional districts, including racially diverse ones.
Together, these political forces mean that the next few months present a rare chance to pass major climate legislation. “This is a make-or-break moment on the climate crisis,” said Jamal Raad, executive director of the climate advocacy group Evergreen Action.
Seven of seven
At President Biden’s news conference on Wednesday, he said that he now wanted to split his Build Back Better legislative agenda into at least two pieces. The climate provisions appear to have more solid Democratic support than proposals on taxes, health care and other issues. (Here’s the latest on the Capitol Hill negotiations, from The Times’s Emily Cochrane.)
Just listen to Senator Joe Manchin, the most prominent Democratic opponent of Biden’s full plan: “The climate thing is one that we probably can come to an agreement much easier than anything else,” he said this month. Manchin does not favor all of Biden’s climate proposals, but he favors many, and it’s not hard to envision a compromise, as Eric Levitz of New York magazine has explained.
My colleagues Coral Davenport and Lisa Friedman report that a growing number of congressional Democrats favor prioritizing the climate provisions, given the stakes. Coral and Lisa also write: “The New York Times asked each of the 50 Senate Republicans if he or she would support just the climate provisions in the Build Back Better Act if they were presented in a stand-alone bill. None said they would.”
Those climate provisions are ambitious enough to make a difference, many scientists believe. They would cost about $555 billion over 10 years, or about one quarter as much as Biden’s full plan. Among the main components:
The largest pot of money would subsidize wind, solar and nuclear power, making them less expensive for companies, communities and households.
Many consumers would receive a rebate of $7,500 on an electric vehicle — and another $4,500 if union workers in the U.S. assembled the car. Consumers could also receive subsidies for solar panels and energy-efficient appliances.
The bill would finance research into technology that would capture carbon after it has been emitted, rather than allowing it to contribute to the greenhouse effect.
During the 2020 campaign, Biden and many other Democrats vowed to do everything they could to slow climate change and reduce its damaging consequences. The next few months will determine if they succeed. As Keohane says, the “last, best chance” notion is closer to the truth now than it usually is.
Related: Last year was Earth’s fifth hottest on record, my colleague Raymond Zhong explains. The seven hottest years, by a significant margin, have been the last seven.
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‘Passion and pain’
At first blush, Jasper Johns’s 1961 painting “In Memory of My Feelings — Frank O’Hara” is a cold sea of gray. It would fit the artist’s reputation, the Times critic Jason Farago writes: “Saturnine, wily, elegant, reserved. The master of withholding.”
In reality, the painting bursts with emotion, as Jason explains in a new installment of the “Close Read” series, in which Times writers guide you through great works of art.
Some clues are hidden in the paint; others come from the details of Johns’s life, friendships and heartbreak. With its meaning revealed, Jason writes, the work “delivers a roundhouse of passion and pain.”
The piece is at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through February, part of a retrospective Johns exhibit. (It is normally at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.) If you go, Jason encourages you to spend a little extra time with this painting — particularly the lower-right quadrant.
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Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you on Monday. — David
P.S. Edward VIII became king of England 86 years ago. He abdicated the throne less than a year later.