Memo to Centrists: The Planet is Melting

A radical group of centrists is wasting our best - and maybe last - chance to save the planet from climate change

In the final days before the 2010 midterm elections, Barack Obama was in Charlottesville, Virginia campaigning for an almost certainly doomed member of Congress. It would be one of the final stops of a brutal campaign. It’s unusual to see a president hold a rally for a single member of the House, and it is very unusual to do so for one that every political pundit believed was going to lose. But this wasn’t a usual member of Congress. Obama was campaigning for Tom Perriello, a freshman member of Congress and former human rights attorney, elected in a Republican district on Obama’s coattails in 2008. Despite the long odds and the president’s middling approval ratings, Perriello asked Obama to come to his district. Obama agreed, against the advice of his staff, because he had a profound respect for the congressman.

Perriello was part of a group of members representing Republican districts that decided to vote for the important but polarizing Affordable Care Act even though they knew their vote would likely cost them their seat in Congress. Without their support, the ACA would have failed and millions of Americans would have spent the last decade without health insurance or critical patient protections.

Each of them understood the stakes. This was perhaps the last chance to address the problem. Reforming healthcare was the signature progressive policy goal for decades. Nearly every president tried and failed — paying a dire price at the polls. If Barack Obama, elected in a landslide with historically large congressional majorities, failed to pass a healthcare bill, no future Democrat would be willing to touch the third rail of American politics. As Perriello told Obama about his decision to support the bill:

There are things more important than getting re-elected.

A decade later, Democrats in Congress are facing a similar decision with even higher stakes. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which is currently caught in picayune policy fights and special-interest wrangling, is our best, and perhaps last, chance to do something meaningful about climate change before it is too late. Yet, the courage and patriotism demonstrated by Perriello and others seem completely absent from the ranks of centrists and others currently pecking Biden’s agenda to death.

Our Last Chance

I don’t enjoy being the bearer of bad news, but the Republicans are strong favorites to take the House in 2022. They have history and gerrymandering on their side. President Biden’s party typically fares poorly in midterm elections. Clinton, Obama, and Trump all lost the House in the first midterm after they got elected. Some political analysts believe Republicans can net enough seats to reclaim the majority through the redistricting process alone. It’s not a done deal; Democrats have some potential advantages against a Republican Party that identifies with anti-vaxxers, White supremacists, and insurrectionists.

But if we lose the House, we may not get it back for a long time. It took 12 years to reclaim the House in 1994 and eight years after losing it in 2010. As long as Republicans control one-half of Congress, nothing will be done to address climate change. Even the most minimal effort would be dead on arrival. That is time our planet does not have. Unless you are a Republican politician blinded by Fox News-based identity politics and donations from Big Oil, you only have to look out the window to see the dangerous impact of climate change. Hurricanes, heatwaves, and wildfires are the new norm.

Recently, after the dire report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out, Brad Plumer and Henry Fountain wrote in the New York Times:

Not all is lost, however, and humanity can still prevent the planet from getting even hotter. Doing so would require a coordinated effort among countries to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by around 2050, which would entail a rapid shift away from fossil fuels starting immediately, as well as potentially removing vast amounts of carbon from the air. If that happened, global warming would likely halt and level off at around 1.5 degrees Celsius, the report concludes.

But if nations fail in that effort, global average temperatures will keep rising… The hotter the planet gets, the greater the risks of crossing dangerous “tipping points,” like the irreversible collapse of the immense ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica.

There is no global solution to climate change without the United States; and our best chance to save the planet may be slipping through our fingers. John Podesta, the wisest of Washington wisemen, recently sent an urgent memo to every Democrat in the House and in the Senate, pleading with them to stop bickering and start legislating. Podesta spearheaded climate policy in the Obama White House during the second term and has been pushing the Democratic Party to be more aggressive on the issue for as long as I can remember. Therefore, one line in his memo stuck out to me:

On the climate crisis in particular, the screen is blinking ‘code red.’ There is no time. There is no next time.

Nickel-and-Diming the Planet

There is real worry in Washington that the divides between Democrats are too great and both the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill, which has a modicum of climate spending and the Build Back Better bill, which represents the boldest climate action in history, will fail. I have some uncharacteristic optimism that the Party will come together to ensure the worst-case scenario does not come to pass. My concern is that what does pass will be woefully insufficient to address the existential threat of climate change. Centrist members of Congress are currently nickel-and-diming the bill to death to pander to special interests or reduce their personal political risk.

Like everything else, the presence of the filibuster is making a difficult situation nearly impossible. Because Democrats are forced to use the budget reconciliation process, climate, healthcare, taxes, childcare, eldercare, and many other issues are all tied up in one legislative vehicle. And because too many Democrats insisted the bill must be fully paid for, we are operating from a limited pie. Everything affects everything else.

When a cabal of centrists blocked a proposal to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drugs in a sop to the drug companies that fund their campaigns, they indirectly hurt the climate portion of the bill. The Medicare proposal saves hundreds of billions of dollars that could be spent to save the planet. When Senator Kyrsten Sinema opposes higher tax rates on corporations as a paean to the Wall Street donors that support her efforts to block Democratic initiatives, there is less money to spend on green energy. When Representatives Josh Gottheimer and Tom Suozzi demand reinstatement of the state and local tax deduction (often exploited by the ultra-wealthy) it means less money to invest in research and technological development to save the planet.

Democrats in safe seats, like Scott Peters and Kathleen Rice, are more scared of angry phone calls from drug company CEOs than planetary destruction. Josh Gottheimer is more concerned about having amiable town halls in his district than historic wildfires and hurricanes. And Sinema holds her reputation for principle-free iconoclasm more dearly than the planet under her feet.

Even if these positions are sincere and based on policy preference as opposed to political positioning, they are so far out of touch with the big picture. There is nothing more important than addressing climate change. Everything else pales in comparison. It’s time to stop messing around and save the planet!

Progressives are also going to have to make compromises and be reasonable but to date, it’s been the centrist wing of the party that has held things and pushed positions far out of touch with the mainstream.

To be honest, the amount of spending originally proposed by Biden is insufficient, but the final product will likely fall far short anyway because many Democrats are too afraid to take a political risk to save the planet. What’s so goddamn infuriating about all of this is that the Affordable Care Act was a legitimately tough vote. Healthcare is among the most polarizing of issues and when it came to vote, the bill had been so muddied up that its approval rating was underwater. The Build Back Better agenda — and the climate provisions in particular — are quite popular.

I have yet to see one member of Congress in a tough seat step up and say that saving the planet is more important than saving themselves. The centrists operating out of reflexive political cowardice and selfishness should read what Barack Obama wrote in his book about Perriello and the others that stepped up to give health insurance to millions:

This is it, I’d say to them finally. The point of it all. To have that rare chance, reserved for very few, to bend history in a better direction. And what was striking was how, more often than not, that was enough… In fact, it was often those with the most to lose who needed the least convincing.

This bill is one of those rare chances. It’s not too late, but it’s getting pretty close.