US Announces a Surprise $369bn Climate Deal - July 29, 2022

Sustainability Decoded Newsletter: A weekly curated list of news - written by Tim Mohin and others - to help keep up with this very dynamic space
Tim Mohin
By Tim Mohin
July 29, 20228 min read
November 22, 2022, 11:20 AMUpdated
July 29, 2022Updated: November 22, 2022, 11:20 AM8 min read

Democrats and Manchin strike a deal on climate and healthcare package

Two weeks after refusing to support any further climate-related legislation, Senator Joe Manchin came to a deal with Congressional Democrats on a major healthcare and climate bill. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) invests roughly $369 billion in climate and energy projects and tax credits, with the goal of reducing U.S. GHG emissions by 40% by the year 2030. In addition, the package dedicates $64 billion to extending Affordable Care Act healthcare subsidies by 3 years. It’s a major reversal for Manchin, whose opposition to the Build Back Better bill spelled a death knell for what was the Biden administration’s biggest climate initiative.

The climate-related projects supported by the bill were revealed last night in the bill’s full text and include investments in wind, solar, geothermal, offshore wind, hydrogen, carbon capture, EV credits, and more. But there’s a catch. As part of the deal struck with Manchin, federal investments in clean energy would require the government to hold auctions for oil and gas drilling on federal lands. This could undermine the legislation’s climate focus and jeopardize its 40% emissions reduction target.

Manchin’s major concern–about the risk of further inflation from a large climate deal–was reportedly alleviated by the revenue-generating parts of the Inflation Reduction Act package. The bill would raise about $739 billion by issuing a 15% corporate minimum tax and allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, dedicating all revenue not spent on climate and healthcare subsidies, about $300 billion, to reducing the federal deficit. The Washington Post reported that Obama-era economic advisor and Harvard professor Larry Summers–a forceful critic of previous Biden administration stimulus packages on inflationary grounds–helped convince Manchin of the economic soundness of the package.

The White House released a statement in support of the package on Wednesday, calling the “historic” Inflation Reduction Act “the action the American people have been waiting for.” The American people will likely have to wait a bit longer, because the bill will face furious opposition from Republicans in Congress this summer. Congressional Democrats hope to move the IRA through the House as quickly as possible and push it through the Senate by reconciliation, which would allow approval by a simple majority instead of the usual 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster.

The Now Toxic Great Salt Lake 

The Great Salt Lake in Utah is drying up after two decades of drought conditions. This month, the lake reached its lowest recorded water level and has now lost almost half of its surface area compared to its historic average, exposing 800 square miles of lakebed. Scientists believe water levels will continue to drop until fall or even winter with continuing dry conditions.

The drying out of the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere and 8th-largest terminal lake in the world will have disastrous consequences for both wildlife surrounding the lake and communities in neighboring Salt Lake City. Unearthed dust from the exposed lakebed has created toxic dust storms laced with calcium, sulfur, and the cancerous arsenic, threatening to render Salt Lake City unsafe for residence. “If you breathe that dust over an extended period of time … it can lead to increases in different types of cancer, like lung cancer, bladder cancer, cardiovascular disease, [and] diabetes,” warned atmospheric scientist and Utah local Kevin Perry.

Beyond human health impacts, upstream biodiversity impacts would contribute to the “environmental nuclear bomb” that is the lake’s disappearance, in the words of Republican state lawmaker Joel Ferry. The lake’s brine shrimp and flies could die off with higher salt levels resulting from further water loss. This in turn would endanger migratory birds and other species that depend on the lake.

The crisis has prompted long-overdue action from Utah lawmakers. The Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement, passed this year, will invest $40 million for wetland restoration and protection around the lake. In June Utah Senator Mitt Romney introduced the Great Salt Lake Recovery Act to Congress, legislation that would study drought conditions and investigate how to protect the lake’s health. 

Some commentators have called for more drastic action, like pumping water back into the lake to compensate for the water loss or even building a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean 600 miles away to supply the lake with saltwater. The diversion of water from the lake in the late twentieth century to irrigate drier parts of the state has contributed to the lake’s desertification, and these solutions would constitute expensive further alterations to refill the rapidly drying lake. One thing is for sure: without quick action, the Great Salt Lake will continue to disappear.

Climate Stories Worth More Attention

With much of recent climate news focusing on European and North American-centric stories, there have been climate stories happening around the world that go under the radar but deserve more attention. In its most recent State of the Climate in Latin America and the Caribbean report, the World Meteorological Organization brought to the world’s attention some of the climate disasters waiting to happen across the continent. These include the Chilean mega-drought, the worst in over 1,000 years, and the Andean glaciers losing their surface area at an alarming rate, causing both water shortages and floods

The report also highlights climate impacts on food security, migration and displacement in the region, and how these nations have fewer resources to adapt to these changes. Dr. Mario Cimoli of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) noted that climate change has “not only impacted the biodiversity of the region, but has also stalled decades of progress against poverty, food insecurity, and the reduction of inequality."

Similar stories are happening all over the world but get fewer column inches than the extreme heat in Europe and North America this summer. There is currently a heat and drought emergency in Northern Mexico that has moved from an inconvenience to a matter of life and death for some as taps go dry in Monterrey. On Africa’s West Coast, climate change-related sea-level rises and coastal erosion are causing a mass exodus of people leaving jobs and homes.  

People Marginalized by the Climate Crisis

Another climate story that garners less attention is climate justice, as highlighted in the New York Times this week. Close to home, displaced victims of climate change-related disasters like hurricane Laura in Louisiana are struggling, and the government is struggling to help them. The Times reports that the increasing frequency and intensity of climate disasters is creating a new class of “domestic climate refugees” that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are unable to keep up with.

Another issue closely intertwined with climate justice is gender equality. A UN report revealed that women are disproportionately impacted by climate-related natural disasters, which have been shown to increase gender-based violence and affect roles that women are typically responsible for in the global south, like collecting water. To combat this, a group of writers banded together and identified six ways they believe organizations can empower women to lead in combating climate change.

Scientists and Software Engineers Switching Focus 

Unwilling to wait for the world to change, there are a great deal of people switching their careers to address the climate crisis. Scientists have quit their tenure and overhauled their academic programs to join climate-driven companies and NGOs. Sophie Gilbert, featured in Nature this week, was already a wildlife ecologist at the University of Idaho in Moscow when she realized that the incremental pace of academia was not going to make the level of difference that she’d hoped.  

She told Nature, “I’ve been studying how wildlife responds to environmental change to inform conservation planning for 15 years now, researching and publishing and waiting for something to happen… The system just isn’t designed to respond to the urgent challenges we’re facing.” From there, Gilbert made a list of climate organizations and eventually got hired at a carbon credit start up in California.  

Scientists aren’t the only ones jumping ship, as tech workers are also quitting their high-paying jobs to join climate-first companies. From Google to Expedia, CNBC interviewed 5 tech experts who left their established careers to begin careers in solar energy, satellite data imaging, climate staffing and carbon accounting. Persefoni’s own chief data officer, James Newsome, was interviewed for this story as well, having left an IT services and consulting company to advance the mission of democratizing carbon accounting. 

“When I was growing up in the ’90s, early 2000s, the only people you saw in climate were these climate scientists with Phds,” Newsome told CNBC. That’s when Persefoni’s CEO Kentaro Kawamori told him that the problem he’d be working to solve was a data problem. 

Missed last week's Sustainability Decoded Newsletter? Check it out now and stay in the know: July 22, 2022.

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