Opinion

What's really at stake with Biden's climate agenda

Millions of lives

Washington, D.C., is waiting to see if our broken political system can produce any climate policy as part of President Biden's agenda, but the stakes of the issue tend to get lost in horse race-obsessed political news coverage. "Winner: Manchin; Loser: Environmentalists" blares Politico Playbook (presented by Google), in an issue written by Rachel Bade, Eli Okun, and Garrett Ross. "The entire climate agenda of the Biden administration is in question right now thanks to one man — and it's unclear if this dynamic will change," they write. 

So let's be clear about one of the biggest climate policy stakes: the literal lives of millions and millions of human beings.

One way to unplug from the Playbook mindset is to simply punch some key words into your favorite search engine. Did you notice the unusual flooding in Venice recently? Or London? Or how about the torrential rains and mudslides in India that have killed a reported 150 people at time of writing? How about flooding in Thailand?

Did you notice that scientists recently estimated California just had its driest year in a century? Have you seen that Lake Mead — the largest reservoir in the country — is at its lowest level since 1937, when it was first filled? How about the unusual "atmospheric river" that is predicted to strike northern California in the next few days, likely causing tremendous rainfall and thence mudslides thanks to the constant plague of climate change-fueled wildfires that have burned up stabilizing undergrowth? (Though that probably won't bring enough precipitation to end the drought.)

The savvy beltway media is certainly not paying close attention to any of those things.

Another more empirically rigorous way to understand the stakes is by consulting a recent report from The Lancet, in which dozens of doctors and research scientists summed up the threat climate change poses to health around the world. Among other things, they find that in 2020: high temperatures caused people over 65 to suffer 3.1 billion more person-days of exposure to heatwaves as compared to the 1986-2005 baseline; that the spectacularly extreme heatwave in the Pacific Northwest killed hundreds of people; that a record of 295 billion work-hours were lost to extreme heat; and that each month up to 19 percent of the Earth's land surface suffered extreme drought, as compared to a record of 13 percent between 1950 and 1999.

They find that last year, drought and heat cut crop yields of staple crops compared to the 1981-2010 baseline — corn by 6.0 percent, winter wheat by 3.0 percent, soybeans by 5.4 percent, and rice by 1.8 percent; that the area of the globe suitable for transmission of malaria, dengue fever, Zika virus, chikungunya virus, and cholera is increasing rapidly; and that very few countries are taking this health threat seriously.

Few countries are doing anything close to their part to cut greenhouse gas emissions, either. On the contrary, "Of the 84 countries reviewed, 65 were still providing an overall subsidy to fossil fuels in 2018 and, in many cases, subsidies were equivalent to substantial proportions of the national health budget," the authors write.

Here is a factual statement: political elites that cut down climate policy, as Sen. Joe Manchin is trying to do, or block it altogether, as the entire Republican Party is trying to do, are taking actions which, if successful, will directly cause the deaths of many, many people. More heatwaves, more extreme drought and flooding, more powerful hurricanes, rising sea levels, less food — these are things that kill people. It's already happening all the time — a few hundred here, a few thousand there. Without aggressive and united action across the world to cut greenhouse emissions and defend against the damages that are already baked in, those numbers will reach into the millions in not too long. And for every person that dies, there are dozens more who will be sickened, or lose their homes or livelihood, or all three at once.

It's far from the first time that carbon pollution has killed people. A recent study estimated that in 2018, fine particulate matter pollution alone (that is, particles under 2.5 microns in diameter) resulting from fossil fuel combustion caused the deaths of 8.7 million people — or about a fifth of all deaths.

The fact that savvy beltway reporters cover climate policy like it's a pet rock for a daffy special interest group at best — indeed, as Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall writes, Politico, Punchbowl, and Axios in particular "have become what amounts to a cheering section for" Manchin and his ally Kyrsten Sinema — reveals the utter rotten emptiness at the core of their faux-sophisticated view of politics. It's not cynical realism to cause millions of deaths and terrific damage to America's own infrastucture in service of a few more years of carbon profits. It's moral corruption so deep as to be tantamount to murder.

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