How Dem debate over Biden climate agenda could affect U.S. economy

The coming weeks will be pivotal for President Joe Biden's domestic agenda as Congress and the White House debate the trade-offs of a major bill that could affect the pocketbooks, working conditions and social safety net for Americans. William Brangham looks at what it could mean for coping with climate change with congressional correspondent Lisa Desjardins and ProPublica's Abrahm Lustgarten.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The coming days are pivotal for the fate of President Biden's domestic agenda. Talks are growing more intense among Democrats and the president, as they debate the tradeoffs of a major bill that could affect the pocketbooks, working conditions and social safety net for millions of Americans.

    Tonight, William Brangham explains what is at stake for the president's efforts to address climate change through legislation.

  • William Brangham:

    President Biden originally proposed a fairly bold climate change agenda. The goal was to cut America's carbon emissions, the emissions that contribute to climate change, cut them by half by the end of this decade.

    One of the central parts of that plan was known as the Clean Electricity Payment Program, or CEPP. It was meant to spur electrical utilities to move more quickly to renewable forms of energy. But now the CEPP seems dead in the water.

    Lisa Desjardins has been reporting on this initiative's demise. And she joins me now

    Hi.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Hi.

  • William Brangham:

    So what happened?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Joe Manchin happened.

    The senator from West Virginia is a key Democratic vote. Without him, nothing moves forward in the Senate. And he said he would absolutely not support anything that looked like this pricing plan. Essentially, this plan, which was focused on utilities, was another way of sort of imposing a renewable standard across the country, almost a cap-and-trade style plan

    And no secret that coal country in West Virginia didn't like it. Joe Manchin said no, and it was taken out of the plan altogether.

    A reminder of why all this is so important. Our climate is at stake here, but so are many jobs. And, as you said, Democrats have a goal of cutting emissions by 50 percent by the end of this decade. That's over 2005 levels.

    Now, they wanted to use tax incentives. Those are still in the plan. That's the biggest part of the plan. but what we're talking about here, this electricity plan, this kind of pricing plan. That was a big chunk. That was about a third of what Democrats were hoping to do. Without it, there is a big hole.

  • William Brangham:

    So, I guess this is just one of the factors of the way our system of democracy works, where this — this plan was enormously popular amongst all the Democrats in the Congress and in the Senate, and yet one senator was able to undo all of that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It was popular among most Democrats.

    This is really the result of our divided country and our divided government. The 50/50 Senate means Joe Manchin has a lot of power. He is someone who personally has investments in coal. In fact, he ran a coal brokerage. He gets — he has about a million dollars more in coal stock, and he gets a lot of donations from coal and energy companies.

    But, on the other hand, he says he's representing his state, which also depends on coal and coal jobs. So, progressives, their agenda is hung up by him. But, on the other hand, he argues, you wouldn't even be this far if a Republican were here from West Virginia, instead of me.

  • William Brangham:

    So if this particular arrow has now been taken out of the Democrats' quiver, how are they talking about trying to make up those emissions reductions going forward?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is so important, because this is going to affect not just all emissions, but pollution and what parts of this country see progress in this area.

    So let's look at exactly what is on the table right now they're just kicking around as ideas, one, a potential tax on imports from countries that have high emissions themselves. They're also looking at another idea, the industrial sector.

    We know that that's a place where a lot of carbon output happens, and they're hoping they can maybe beef up opportunities to decarbonize. That would affect a lot of urban communities especially. And then, finally, William, another idea is about transmission of renewable energy.

    There's a problem there that Congress might be able to do more on. I want to look at this map of our country. You see where most of the wind energy — that's in blue — comes from. That's the central part of our country, the Great Plains essentially.

    Solar power, that's biggest in the Southwest. What's missing there, a huge part of the country in all kinds of corners, the Northeast. How do you get that renewable energy across the country to cities that need it in other parts where it's not generated? Transmission.

    That's something they're trying to figure out if this bill can help going forward.

  • William Brangham:

    Lisa Desjardins, as always, thank you so much for helping us wade through all this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    My pleasure. You're welcome.

  • William Brangham:

    So, as Lisa has been reporting, the president's climate change agenda took a real hit this week. And while everyone here in Washington is debating the costs of this action vs. that action, my next guest has been trying to focus our attention the cost of inaction.

    Abrahm Lustgarten covers climate change for ProPublica.

    Abrahm, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    When someone says to you, what do you mean by the cost of inaction, what are you actually talking about?

  • Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica:

    Everything about what climate change is going to do to the world and to our society is going to cost us money and impact our economy. It's going to inflict incredible storms, which have a great cost of cleanup. It's going to change the value of real estate. It's going to change the way we grow food and how much food we can grow and the farm economy that surrounds that.

    And it's going to change how productive labor is. So it really gets to the bedrock of everything that drives our economic activity. Economists I speak with estimate that climate change unabated could cost the U.S. 10 percent of its GDP. Climate change slightly abated, sort of a middle path plan, could cost the U.S. 4 percent of its GDP, which is $840 billion a year, if you count that against today's economy.

  • William Brangham:

    So you mentioned some of the ways in which climate change runs up these incredible bills.

    What are some of the other ways? Are we talking droughts, fires, storms, things like that as well?

  • Abrahm Lustgarten:

    Yes, I mean, it's really everything, and it all adds up.

    So, disasters alone, the United States has spent about $700 billion since 2017. There's been $18 billion disasters so far this year alone. The National Climate Assessment, the U.S. federal report on climate change, tallied a long list of the ways that the economy will be impacted. Some of the items on that list are like $155 billion a year in labor impacts, labor productivity, $6 billion for urban drainage systems, $20 billion in road damages.

    You can start to see that everything from health care, to pandemic response, to wildfire fighting, to disaster cleanups, they each are a line item on a list of costs that adds up to many trillions of dollars.

  • William Brangham:

    And, as you're describing, these are costs that are in some ways spread over the entire economy.

    But some of these impacts are very localized. They do not fall equally on everyone.

  • Abrahm Lustgarten:

    Yes, that's right.

    So, I mean, everything about climate change's impacts are unequal in a way. And so you see disproportionate impacts in the most vulnerable parts of the country. Some of the economic forecasts that I have been looking apt predict that that GDP impact might be as high as 20 or 25 percent for counties in the Southern part of the country, along the Gulf Coast in particular.

    Some of those impacts to crop fields that economists are looking at, they reach 70 percent, 90 percent in places in counties in Texas and Oklahoma. So, there might be some economic growth or opportunity in the northern part of the country, but in the Southern part of the country and in the Southwest and the Gulf Coast in particular, those economic impacts are going to be very substantial.

  • William Brangham:

    And, I mean, these numbers are sort of astronomical, and they, in some ways, offer a real context for the numbers that are being debated here in Washington, D.C.

    What do we know about whether the elements and the actions that are being considered here in the Capitol would actually have any meaningful impact on these climate impacts that you're describing?

  • Abrahm Lustgarten:

    You know, I haven't seen that kind of analysis of the language in this specific proposed bill.

    But, in general, the consensus is that the faster emissions are reduced and the greater they're reduced, the slower climate change will be, the slower warming will be, and the less ultimate costs will be. And this has been quantified, again, not just by the United Nations, but by the U.S. government.

    Its National Climate Assessment estimated that reducing emissions quickly and now could reduce that economic harm I was talking about by 30 to 60 percent. Just one example in there, I mean, the government lists $9 billion in costs for impacts to electricity systems, to our grid systems. And it suggests that reducing emissions quickly could reduce that cost to $30 billion, so — to $3 billion — excuse me — so cutting it by two-thirds.

    The speed of our response now has a substantial impact in the forecasted costs for the future.

  • William Brangham:

    All of the things that you're describing are costs that are going to be borne not just by individual citizens in their own lives, but by mayors and governors all over this country.

    And I'm just curious if, in your reporting, you have gleaned any sense as to why, if this is so self-evident in so many communities, why that hasn't percolated up into our political leaders here in Washington.

  • Abrahm Lustgarten:

    I mean, I think that individuals, local communities, local municipalities are slow to understand the financial impacts that are coming their way. They're just beginning to see those impacts the last couple of years. So it's an emerging issue.

    The ways that I'm talking about, cuts in emissions, the way they're forecasted to lessen those costs in the future, it's modeled at projected figures in a lot of sort of complex material, and I don't think that that has quite pervaded the conversation among leaders.

    And you're right when you talk about the kind of numbers that are being batted around in this reconciliation bill, much of which is not climate-related, by the way, but even, in its entirety, it's relatively small compared to the kind of many trillions, the very, very large figures that we're seeing in projected costs.

  • William Brangham:

    This is such important context.

    Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica, thank you so much for being here.

  • Abrahm Lustgarten:

    Thanks for having me.

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