The heatwave in the Pacific Northwest this past week has been nothing short of staggering. Temperatures well over 100 degrees overwhelmed Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia over the last several days, shattering records, sending dozens of people to the emergency room with heat-related illnesses, and demolishing the area’s physical infrastructure.
If there was ever a time for drastic, monumental action, this is it; anything short of a complete restructuring of the economic order is an inadequate response to a climate disaster that’s already here. Instead, what we’re getting is nothing more than lip service.
Seattle has had six 100-plus degree days since temperatures started being documented. Three of them happened in a row this past week.
It hit 116 degrees in Portland on Monday, something that has never happened in 30 states, including South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida.
The heatwave began to subside Tuesday, though Oregon is set to see temperatures mostly in the 90s throughout the rest of the week. But on top of what’s already happened, the heatwave is setting up what’s likely to be a another brutal fire season, and it’s going to take weeks to fully grasp the public health impacts of consecutive 100-degree days in an area that is very much not used to them. (Just as one example: two unhoused people were found dead on the side of a road in Bend Sunday, and service providers believe their deaths were heat-related, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.)
There have been signs for years that climate change is not only here but already impacting how people live in a very real way, but few have been as surreal and direct as watching Portland and Seattle turn into Death Valley almost overnight. “In the Pacific Northwest, we thought maybe by the middle of the century is when we would start to see really substantial and impactful events,” Oregon state climatologist Larry O’Neill told NBC News. “But we’re seeing those now.”
Speaking in Wisconsin on Tuesday, President Joe Biden mentioned the heatwave in service of essentially mocking the 2007 version of a climate villain.
Sure, there are a lot of Republicans out there still who refuse to believe climate change is real or a big deal. But at this point the bigger obstacle, especially given a government where Democrats control both the White House and Congress, is undertaking quarter-measures to deal with a world historical problem. And Biden and the Democrats themselves are very much complicit.
There’s nothing like Biden’s proposal for a national clean electricity standard in the bipartisan infrustructure bill he is championing, let alone proposals championed by House progressives like climate jobs programs, big investments in renewable energy, and environmental justice standards. The bill is a glorified privatization scheme instead, with about $100 billion going to clean energy projects, according to the Washington Post. That might sound like a lot, but for comparison, decarbonizing the economy would require something close to a $1 trillion annual investment over the next decade, as the Roosevelt Institute estimated in 2019.
Last week, Biden endorsed passing this meek-for-the-sake-of-bipartisanship infrastructure deal that represents a huge giveaway. And although Biden seemingly drew a red line last week and threatened to veto the bipartisan bill if it wasn’t “in tandem” with another, Democrat-only bill, he’s since walked that back in a huge way—to much embarrassment—in order to reassure shaky Republicans. (On Wednesday, the White House took things further, telling Politico that the Democratic bill can’t be used to boost spending on anything already included in the bipartisan bill, though that still leaves Democrats room to pursue some climate-related measures.)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who’s been talking a big game about not capitulating for weeks, is also begging her caucus to stay quiet about a two-track plan—it doesn’t matter if the House passes both at the same time if they don’t have guarantees the Senate will pass it either.
That’s not to say it’s completely dead yet, as Biden reiterated in his weekend statement that he’d continue to pursue reconciliation, and Pelosi is still promising to pass both plans. But Joe Manchin, who is part of the “Gang of 21” and one of the Senate votes Democrats would need for the reconciliation bill, is already talking about whittling down the $6 trillion package Bernie Sanders is working on to $2 trillion with pay-fors.
That’s if Manchin—and Kyrsten Sinema, Mark Warner, and the rest of the centrist Senate Democrats—actually feel obligated to back a second package at all, assuming they get the big bipartisan win they’re all clamoring for on the first one. Manchin, it must be repeated, once shot a bullet through the cap-and-trade bill for a television ad, if that helps you understand just how committed he is to climate action.
Progressives in Congress have vowed to vote against any deal that doesn’t ultimately offer “bold action” on climate, as The New Republic reported earlier this month. Sanders, for his part, drew his own line on Sunday after Manchin said he would demand a much smaller relief package, which has extra heft considering Sanders runs the Senate Budget committee.
What happened in the Pacific Northwest this past week was not a warning about some future problem, but a reminder that we are already neck-deep into climate catastrophe. It’s just not enough to pass a bipartisan bill that engages with the problem only around the edges, or to tie your hands behind your back due to deficit concerns. This is happening either way and it’s going to cost money; it’s just a matter of how long it takes policymakers to decide the human toll and displacement is too great to kick the can anymore, if they ever reach that point at all.
It’s good to see Sanders try and play hardball about the issue, but that’s still not much comfort. The American political system has shown time and time again that it is not prepared to match the scale of the climate crisis with the action needed to even partially step back from total disaster, no matter how much damage is being caused. A Senate in which Joe Manchin has a veto on the scope of any climate response will not be the Senate that breaks with that tradition, and, if we’re being honest, even a Senate ruled by Bernie Sanders would likely struggle to cope with the actual magnitude of what this moment requires. Things are just that dire. It’s understandable to ask how much worse things need to get before these people wake up, but the truth is that most of them don’t really care that much. It’s a numbers game in multiple respects—one of them being that half of the Senate has already hit retirement age and won’t be around when it’s not shocking but rather normal to see a 105-degree day in western Washington in late June.
Optimistically, the only thing we can do is adapt and mitigate. And if the ostensibly liberal party in this country is more worried about the deficit, the fossil fuel industry, or the tender feelings of Mitt Romney than actually addressing the crisis in a significant way, the consequences are only going to get progressively more disastrous.