Despite the Inflation Reduction Act, U.S. progress on climate change remains stuck in a climate conundrum, experts say, hampered by politics, complexity and the scope of the problem
The climate is changing quickly—that much is clear. And yet, despite recent gains, climate policy seems to move at a glacial pace.
In 2021, the average temperature of the surface of the Earth, both land and water, was 1.51 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average for the 20th century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It was also the 45th consecutive year that global surface temperature rose above the average for the last century. And the nine years since 2013 are all in the top 10 warmest years ever recorded, with 2020 and 2016 tied for the warmest ever.
Meanwhile, the number and length of heat waves has grown every decade since the 1960s, snowpack seasons have decreased by an average of 18 days in 86% of sites measured, and the rate of flooding on the East and Gulf coasts has increased since the 1950s and continues to accelerate, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The August passage of the $369 billion Inflation Reduction Act, laden with funding for climate solutions, is widely seen as an important step in addressing the acceleration of harmful impacts, even if some, like the environmental group Earthjustice, bemoan that its “troubling giveaways to fossil-fuel interests will cause undue harm.”
Even so, the United States’ pace in taking mitigating climate action remains well behind the rest of the Western world. According to two academics from the University of Colorado Boulder, the reasons for the lag are varied and complex, from an outdated political system to money in politics, lobbying by industry, a fractured media landscape, the global nature and vast time scale of climate change, and even the COVID-19 pandemic
For Srinivas C. Parinandi, assistant professor of political science at CU Boulder, the problems start at the very founding of the nation, decades before the invention of the internal-combustion engine, much less the problem of global climate change.
“One of the biggest obstacles is the nature of the American political system, specifically that the Senate gives small, rural states outsized political power and the ability to derail legislation they don’t like,” he says.
“As it turns out, an act of God or whatever you want to call it, most fossil fuel deposits happen to be in smaller, predominately rural states.”
Parinandi notes that fossil fuel companies have had more than a century to build political relationships in small-population states such as Wyoming, West Virginia or Alaska, “and those don’t deteriorate overnight.”
Max Boykoff, CU Boulder professor of environmental studies and author of Creative Climate Communications: Productive Pathways for Science, Policy and Society, agrees that “intensive lobbying by carbon-based industry” has contributed to a political culture “that has not been conducive to coordinated action.”
Industry groups have for years funded shadow groups, think tanks and even advertising campaigns to promote their interests and “slow down, distract and delay” action, Boykoff says. Which isn’t all that surprising, he notes, quoting muckraking writer Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Boykoff cites lobbying, the influence of money in politics, gerrymandering and skewed budgetary priorities as impediments to political reform. But while some argue that real action on climate change won’t be achieved in the absence of major political reform, he believes both can—and should—be tackled at the same time.
“We need to be working on democracy and the way we have civil discourse in Congress,” he says. “But I don’t think we have to fix democracy before we alleviate the negative impacts (of climate change). We need to be doing both in tandem, and a whole lot more.”
For Boykoff, the scale and complexity of a problem whose effects literally span the globe and won’t be fully realized for centuries—he calls it “possibly the most complex environmental policy negotiation ever undertaken”—makes it difficult for a political system oriented toward short-term election cycles to address. Politicians must cater to voters, who often do not even consider the dangers of climate change unless they have been directly affected, he says.
Parinandi agrees, noting the vexing fact that the human brain is notoriously limited in its ability to react to long-term threats.
When I teach a bunch of 20-year-olds, I use the analogy that you should eat a salad rather than a cheeseburger, so you won’t have a heart attack in 30 years. You can’t wait until cholesterol is clogging your arteries. It’s the same logic with climate change.
“Many voters tend toward obstinacy because they don’t see how it is going to affect them,” he says, adding that many in the public also struggle to grasp the time scale involved in climate change.
“When I teach a bunch of 20-year-olds, I use the analogy that you should eat a salad rather than a cheeseburger, so you won’t have a heart attack in 30 years. You can’t wait until cholesterol is clogging your arteries,” he says. “It’s the same logic with climate change.”
Parinandi believes that two-plus years of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated problems of partisanship: “The pandemic isolated people, encouraging them to go home, close the door and not interact with other people. And when you are not used to hanging out with people different from you, or people, period, you lose the ability to connect and compromise.”
He sees a shift from “evidence-based arguments to group affiliations” and notes that many Americans who appear to be doing objectively well are “successful and angry, swayed by (partisan) media.” He faults partisan media, especially media that advance “nativism,” for turning away from science and becoming openly disdainful of education, which renders some voters skeptical toward data about the dangers at hand.
Boykoff concurs, citing a “fractured media environment, which means many aren’t hearing the data and reality” about climate change.
Still, Boykoff and Parinandi are encouraged by the Inflation Reduction Act, which contains scores of provisions, from electrifying the U.S. Postal Service fleet to investing in clean-energy technology, designed to reduce emissions by 40% by 2030 and improve the economy.
“The Inflation Reduction Act was smartly designed to also address jobs and produce well-paying green jobs,” Boykoff notes.
Passage of the bill fell along party lines, requiring the approval of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, despite heavy pressure from coal and petroleum industries.
“Manchin’s willingness to collaborate was a great sign. I think (members of Congress) are starting to recognize that the status quo is not sustainable forever,” Parinandi says.
He is also encouraged that major energy companies are beginning to pursue their own, more climate-friendly, policies independent of Washington politics.
“Green energy is taking off,” Parinandi says, citing the example of Xcel Energy, which provides electricity to millions of customers in Colorado, Texas and New Mexico. “They are one of the largest, and they weren’t always behind green energy. But they are behind it now, and they are able to finance their preferred candidates.”
Despite the obstacles, Boykoff says he’s buoyed by shifts in public discussion over climate change in recent years.
“Discussing climate change in the here and now is proving very effective, rather than talking about distant time or distant places, and I really think that has changed dramatically over the last two years,” he says.
“This isn’t a single issue; it’s a set of intersected challenges that influence how we live, work, play and relax every day. It’s not just a thing to debate on the stage of the Democratic National Committee.”