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Analysis: Why the US is so horribly incapable of meaningful climate action

Runways are melting in the UK. Lakes are drying up in the US. Fires are raging all over.

But the federal government is stuck in amber, blocked by a Supreme Court that pines for a pre-industrial age, insisting on new laws for the Environmental Protection Agency to fight climate change, and beholden to a custom in the Senate that makes any new climate law all but impossible.
One Democratic senator — Joe Manchin, from the coal-producing state of West Virginia — held the power to bless or destroy some climate action this year. He chose destruction.

Europe’s second major heat wave of this summer is its worst so far.

The UK could record it’s highest ever temperature if, as expected, it logs 40 degrees Celsius (about 104 Fahrenheit) on Tuesday.

Wildfires are destroying areas in France and Spain.

Brits more used to the cool and damp have lived without air conditioning, something they might need to rethink since this week’s heat wave is a preview of the world’s new climate.

As CNN Senior Climate Editor Angela Fritz wrote last week, the weather the UK is experiencing now was actually part of a hypothetical climate change forecast prepared by the UK government. It’s coming true decades earlier than predicted.

Europe’s problem is the world’s problem

I asked Fritz why Americans should be looking at the weather in Europe. She sent me these reasons why we should expect more hot than cold as the climate changes — and why our way of life is compounding the problem:

  • Heat and climate change. Heat is one of those things that is irrefutably made worse by climate change. Burning fossil fuels traps heat in our atmosphere, which increases temperatures, which leads to more intense and more deadly heat waves.
  • It’s happening here too. What’s playing out in Europe right now is remarkably similar to what we saw last year in the Pacific Northwest — a region that is used to cooler weather besieged by record-breaking heat. Hundreds of people died in the Northwest last summer, and we’ve already seen reports that more than 1,000 people died of heat-related illness in Spain and Portugal in the past several days.
  • Humans caused this. Scientists later found that the Northwest heat wave would have been “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change. The same will be said for Europe’s heat this week — and specifically the all-time records in the UK. We just wouldn’t be able to get these kinds of temperatures without global warming.
  • There will be more hot than cold. We’re not seeing nearly as much record-breaking cold now. We actually pulled up the latest record count for this year earlier today and found that warm records were outpacing cold ones by more than 10 to 1 so far in 2022. For 188 all-time heat records so far this year around the globe, only 18 cold records have been broken.

Don’t expect anything large and meaningful from the US government

The second part of this story has to do with the US government, which is witnessing a conservative Supreme Court wield more power to weaken the federal government.

Less power for the EPA. In June the conservatives who will control the court for decades denuded the EPA of its ability to, as CNN wrote, broadly regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants.

It also upended years of doctrine by which the federal government assumed authority to regulate everything from climate policy to worker safety.

Congress is dysfunctional. Busting the federal bureaucracy back to the Gilded Age might sound good in a legal seminar, as in demanding more guidance from Congress.

But the problem is that the growing tribalism of US politics means Congress cannot agree to do big things. Climate change, which scientists have long argued is ultimately an existential threat, is the biggest.

But inflation. Manchin cited the immediate issue of inflation as his reason for abandoning the other immediate issue of people changing the world’s climate.

“Inflation is absolutely killing many, many people,” Manchin told MetroNews Talkline. “They can’t buy gasoline, they have a hard time buying groceries, everything they buy and consume for their daily lives is a hardship to us. And can’t we wait to make sure that we do nothing to add to that?”

We’ll have to wait. And if Republicans take control of the US House after November’s election, short of a party epiphany, we will continue to wait.

Doing nothing is also expensive

White House economic adviser Jared Bernstein told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday that he didn’t understand how Manchin could miss the devastating impacts of the climate crisis.

“It is beyond me how anyone could miss it,” Bernstein said, arguing droughts, floods and wildfires, which have been made worse by the climate crisis, are costing the economy $100 billion each year.

The plan Manchin abandoned, already drastically pared back to suit his fancy, included massive investments in clean and renewable energy and electric vehicles to cut down on fossil fuels and incentives to get Americans to become much more energy efficient.

This problem is bigger than Joe Manchin. The West Virginia senator is an easy target for frustration since he is a Democrat bucking his party. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, accused Manchin Sunday of “intentionally sabotaging” President Joe Biden’s agenda.

But that let’s Republicans off the hook for taking a united party position against any sort of climate action.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, although that won’t help. For now, while the climate crisis continues, the biggest plans to fight it are on ice.

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