Last week, NBC White House correspondent Geoff Bennett tweeted the banal observation that he couldn’t remember the last time he saw Democratic and Republican senators having a laugh in public. It was in the wake of the so-called Gang of 10 bipartisan group of senators showing up at the White House to pitch their infrastructure bill to President Joe Biden who announced, “We have a deal.”
Bennett’s observation about the comity on display came less than a week before the Pacific Northwest melted down—literally—in a heat wave for the record books. But the two things are inherently tied. There’s a bizarre fetish for bipartisanship in the political press as if the solution to all our problems sits neatly in the middle of the political spectrum. But this week’s heat wave as well as Exxon lobbyists admitting in secret recordings that they talk to Sen. Joe Manchin’s office “every week” show the utter hollowness of bipartisanship as a means of addressing climate change. And the lack of meaningful policy action ensured by that hollowness makes it just another form of climate denial, one even more dangerous than flat-out denying science.
One of the failings in how we talk about politics in America is the misconception that there is a centrist sweet spot for all issues, that when a group of senators from both parties gets together and laughs, all is right in the world. Look at the world, and it becomes readily apparent all is not right.
This week alone, we’ve seen infrastructure melt, the threat of blackouts in the largest city in the U.S., an entire town in Canada burn to the ground just a day after setting the country’s all-time heat record, and the fifth storm of the Atlantic hurricane season form. This isn’t one bad week. This is life on Earth in 2021, another year where carbon dioxide hit an annual high unseen in millions of years and the climate became a little less hospitable.
To reduce emissions and prepare ourselves for the climate change already baked into the system will require a complete overhaul of all society’s life support systems. Various lines of research and major reports show our homes have to be electrified, new oil and gas extraction needs to stop next year, sea walls and natural barriers need to be constructed to hold back the sea, and public transit needs to be more accessible for all. These are multi-trillion-dollar projects that will require rapid deployment. The alternative is more of what we’ve seen in recent years and diminished lives for everyone on Earth, but particularly the poorest among us.
The backslapping bipartisan we’ve seen does not offer up transformational change. Biden’s opening bid of $2 trillion for infrastructure already lacked the money to meet the moment. The bipartisan version is a shell of that already inadequate policy push. Biden’s plan included $174 billion for electric vehicles. The bipartisan plan offers $15 billion. The American Jobs Plan had $85 billion earmarked for public transit. The Joe Manchin-Bill Cassidy special offers $48.5 billion. The only areas where the two bills are roughly on par are related to highways and airports, both of which lock in decades of more carbon pollution.
The idea that the ideal policy position to address climate change sits squarely between left and right is like saying the best place between the edge of a cliff and thin air 10 feet out is 5 feet beyond the brink. Choose the middle ground, and you will still fall to your death.
Consider the money the bipartisan proposal sets aside for coastal defenses. Biden hopped on Twitter to tout the deal’s $52 billion in funding “to strengthen our natural infrastructure — like coastlines and levees — and our physical infrastructure.” Yet a report published in 2019 found investing $400 billion to protect the coasts alone might not be enough to prevent catastrophic damage. Getting Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mitt Romney to have a chuckle sure is nice, but it’s not going to save Miami.
The other irony is nobody outside Washington, DC, actually gives a shit about whether infrastructure and climate legislation is bipartisan or not. A majority of voters want major investments in infrastructure and clean energy, and they are fine if it passes via a party-line reconciliation vote.
To truly understand the deal and who bipartisanship benefits, you need only look at the scene on the White House driveway. There, a group of lawmakers got to stand next to the president as the press hung on their every word (and, apparently, smile). I don’t doubt some of those involved in the negotiation see it as a good outcome for the country, but ultimately, this was about power for the negotiators. The power to command good press, get a head-pat from the president, and leverage concessions from the senators’ respective caucuses. It also tosses a bone to the large corporate donors keeping these politicians in power.
The secret recordings of Exxon lobbyists dropped this week by UK outlet Channel 4 explicitly name members of Gang of 10 as the lynchpins to blocking Biden’s infrastructure plan.
“Joe Manchin, I talk to his office every week, he is the kingmaker on this because he’s a Democrat from West Virginia which is [a] very conservative state, so he is, and he’s not shy about sort of staking his claim early and completely changing the debate,” Keith McCoy, Exxon’s senior director of federal relations, said on the recording.
McCoy also rattled off the names of Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, John Tester, Chris Coons, and John Barrasso, all members of the bipartisan negotiation. (He also name-dropped Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who was in initial talks with the White House to water down Biden’s proposal.) McCoy even boasted that Exxon CEO Darren Woods was speaking directly with Coons, who, he helpfully noted, “has a very close relationship” with Biden.
Exxon has, for decades, funded climate denial and fought regulations. McCoy called Biden’s commitment to reduce emissions up to 52% by 2030 “insane.” They are the bare minimum and—when added up with the rest of the world’s commitments—only give us a 50-50 shot to prevent catastrophic levels of warming. Getting those chances a little more in our favor is of utmost importance. But as the recordings make clear, Exxon has no interest in that happening, and the company knows exactly how to leverage bipartisanship to ensure it doesn’t.
None of this is to say Republicans can’t have good climate ideas for how to fix infrastructure and address climate change. Sure, let’s plant some trees. Hell, let’s invest in R&D for carbon capture. Great.
But pretending that’s all that matters, or that there’s some ideal middle ground between that and the Green New Deal, is a lie. Climate policy isn’t about imagining a spectrum from left to right and finding the sweet spot in the middle. It’s a zero-sum battle with physics that doesn’t give a damn about who’s laughing with whom.
Passing off the bipartisan deal as the best route risks stalling the more aggressive action actually needed to stave off more damage. The world we currently live in where it’s warmed “just” 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) has already pushed the 20th-century infrastructure we have to the brink and caused immense suffering. Not acknowledging that reality when crafting policy is a death sentence for millions more.