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Congress Democrats appear ready to pass new legislation with focus on climate change

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Two weeks ago, negotiations imploded over climate and energy provisions in a Senate budget package. But just last night, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia announced that they had a deal. And it is being hailed as a historic investment in climate action if it passes. NPR's Laura Benshoff is here to walk us through it. Hi, Laura.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: All right, so this reconciliation bill from Democrats, it touches on taxes and prescription drug costs. But the big headline here is nearly $370 billion for energy and climate proposals. What would that pay for?

BENSHOFF: A whole laundry list of things. That money would be dished out to incentivize clean energy manufacturing here in the U.S. It would expand tax credits to ramp up wind and solar construction. And those tax credits would also flow to still-developing energy technologies like carbon capture, which is favored in fossil fuel-producing areas. Sarah Ladislaw is a managing director at RMI, a nonpartisan group that backs clean energy. And she says getting all of this in one bill is itself pretty unusual.

SARAH LADISLAW: We usually have this tendency to either focus on innovation and RD&D, maybe a little bit of lip service to manufacturing. But this, for the first time, is doing all the things.

BENSHOFF: There's also tens of billions of dollars to advance environmental justice and incentives for buying a new or used electric vehicle. And taken all together, this spending aims to reshape the two most carbon-polluting sectors of the U.S. economy, transportation and electricity generation.

SUMMERS: All right, but there are also some compromises here, like language about oil and gas leasing offshore and on public land. So give us an indication - how much would this move the needle on how much the U.S. actually contributes to climate change?

BENSHOFF: It would make a difference. I talked to a couple groups that analyze how government action changes the outlook for climate change. Both said it would take some time to run their models. But Jesse Jenkins, who leads one such modeling project at Princeton University, says his preliminary read is that it would bring the U.S. much closer to its climate goals.

JESSE JENKINS: It doesn't get us all the way there on its own, but it keeps us in the climate fight, and it puts us within a close enough distance that further executive action, state and local government efforts and private sector leadership could plausibly get us across the finish line by 2030.

BENSHOFF: That finish line is cutting carbon emissions in the U.S. by half from 2005 levels by the end of the decade, as the Biden administration promised. And that pledge is based on what climate scientists say we need to do. It's swift and aggressive action. The experts I talked to also said this package is meaningful because the U.S. isn't alone in setting ambitious climate targets. Taking action pushes other countries to meet their goals too.

SUMMERS: And, Laura, in the little bit of time that we have left, we know that Democrats in the White House have been facing pressure from all sides on this, with climate activists calling on the White House to declare a climate emergency, Republicans being critical of climate action. What are you hearing now?

BENSHOFF: Republicans are still critical, but I will say that most climate advocates have gotten onboard. They support it as a necessary set of compromises. That's a net positive for the environment.

SUMMERS: NPR's Laura Benshoff. Thank you.

BENSHOFF: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is a reporter covering energy and climate for NPR's National desk. Prior to this assignment, she spent eight years at WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR Member station. There, she most recently focused on the economy and immigration. She has reported on the causes of the Great Resignation, Afghans left behind after the U.S. troop withdrawal and how a government-backed rent-to-own housing program failed its tenants. Other highlights from her time at WHYY include exploring the dynamics of the 2020 presidential election cycle through changing communities in central Pennsylvania and covering comedian Bill Cosby's criminal trials.