Many Americans may think they know why a president who came into office with New Deal-size ambitions, promising to spend trillions on climate and halve emissions along the way, has ended up desperate to secure just a fraction of that, and seemingly willing to trade a lot for the privilege. The familiar central figure of the domestic climate stalemate is Senator Joe Manchin.
But from the beginning of those negotiations, there was a second explanation, including among those working on legislative strategy: that the Biden administration split most of its climate ambition from its pandemic recovery package, and then, when climate policy was bundled with child care, home care and health care as the Build Back Better plan, the proposal was designed to be paid for with taxes rather than bonds and deficit spending. With both choices, the signal was there: The pandemic represented a different kind of emergency, requiring a different scale of ambition and urgency, and climate, while important, could be tabled now for debate in a more conventional political setting.
And yet as is often the case with climate, it gets harder to maintain a provincial American focus on domestic obstacles when you look at the behavior of others around the world — even at the world’s richest and most climate-conscious nations, responding themselves to quite different domestic political dynamics. The European Union, with its ambitious Fit for 55 program consecrating climate ambition into law, and where 30 percent of recovery spending was originally promised to climate, managed only 15 percent, according to a separate analysis of 2020 stimulus plans by the Rhodium Group, though even that was still enough to “far surpass all other economies in green spending.” In the United States, the figure was 1.1 percent; in India, 1 percent, and in China, 0.3 percent. In poorer parts of the world, the response was often bleaker, given the burdens of existing debt and the challenge of providing pandemic welfare spending of any kind.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Figueres says. “It really is mind-boggling. Why? Why did it happen like that?” She takes a long pause. “I go back to human nature and human psychology. We’re facing the tiger that is right in front of us. And the only thing that we can think of is how to avoid being eaten right now. It’s very difficult to think beyond the tail of the tiger.”
The climate, and the world, are changing. What challenges will the future bring, and how should we respond to them?
Figueres often describes herself as a stubborn optimist; in fact, the organization she now leads is even called Global Optimism. But she can be quite pointedly critical, especially for a diplomat. About the missed opportunity of pandemic spending, she says, “it was very, very narrowly thought through.” She adds, “All of these jobs and all of this stuff that we eventually are going to have to transform — we just revived them instead. Instead of taking advantage to move beyond, we revived the old again — again! Again, for God’s sakes.”
But if you’re inclined to regard the pandemic as a uniquely tragic missed opportunity for climate, the invasion of Ukraine presents, possibly, a sequel: a climate test that is also a climate opportunity.