Biden’s Climate action: Just in Time or Too Little Too Late?

Pallone, Malinowski, Payne.

The day before President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, hailed as our country’s first real climate crisis action legislation, PBS reported that a new study showed  the Arctic had “warmed nearly four times faster than the rest of the world over the past 43 years. This means the Arctic is on average around 3℃ warmer than it was in 1980.”

Earlier in the month, PBS reported a scientific journal Nature Climate Change published a study that climate events “like flooding, heat waves and drought have worsened more than half of the hundreds of known infectious diseases in people, including malaria, hantavirus, cholera and anthrax.”

“The findings of this study are terrifying and illustrate well the enormous consequences of climate change on human pathogens,” Dr. Carlos del Rio, an Emory University infectious disease specialist, told PBS. “Those of us in infectious diseases and microbiology need to make climate change one of our priorities, and we need to all work together to prevent what will be without doubt a catastrophe as a result of climate change.”

On August 16th, there was New Jersey’s Congressman Frank Pallone in the posterity photo of President Biden signing the Inflation Reduction Act, the $750 billion replacement for his Build Back Better agenda that was originally priced between twice to four times the size of what ultimately passed.

PRICED TO MOVE

Pallone, as the chair of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee and as a member of the Progressive Caucus, played a key role in shaping the final product that won the votes of both Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.

During a House floor speech on Aug. 12, Pallone catalogued the benefits of the legislation which he told his colleagues was “the single-largest investment in climate action in American history that will also create new clean jobs and lower energy costs for American families.”

He continued. “It includes many provisions from my Energy and Commerce Committee that will drive down dangerous methane pollution, deploy low- and zero-emission technologies nationwide, and reduce energy usage through home energy efficiency upgrades. The legislation makes unparalleled investments in climate, clean energy, and environmental justice that put us on track to meet our aggressive climate goals. It also includes an unprecedented $2.6 billion to conserve and restore coastal habitats with living shoreline projects and protect coastal communities like the ones along the Jersey Shore.”

HEALTH & TAXES

In addition, as CBS News reported that big oil was grabbing “unprecedented profits as Americans struggle to pay for food,” Pallone successfully won the reimposition of the Superfund tax on oil and petroleum companies to hold them accountable for clean-ups, not taxpayers. It had been permitted to expired back in 1995.

While the environmental measures of the IRA grabbed most of the headlines, there were other far reaching provisions that reflected foundational shifts in healthcare and tax policy that were the handiwork of the Democratic Party’s most progressive members who kept the faith with President Biden even as his agenda flickered on an off life support for months.

“The Inflation Reduction Act is also one of the most significant pieces of health care legislation in over a decade,” Pallone proclaimed.  “It breaks Big Pharma’s monopoly on prescription drug prices by finally empowering Medicare to negotiate lower prices, capping the amount seniors pay at $2,000 annually, and penalizing companies that unfairly hike prices faster than inflation by requiring them to pay a rebate to Medicare. 

This legislation finally levels the playing field to ensure seniors are no longer forced to choose between putting food on their table and their lifesaving prescription drugs.” 

“The legislation will dramatically lower the cost of monthly health insurance premiums for millions of Americans. Five million Americans have gained access to health care coverage over the last two years thanks to Democrats’ efforts to make it more affordable, and I’m pleased that this legislation will extend those efforts for three more years.”

The IRA also imposes a 15 percent minimum tax on some of the nation’s largest multinationals who had successfully avoided paying taxes, and in the process shifted the burden of paying to maintain our national defense and federal government onto everybody else. 

But in the process of getting to yes, Democrats failed to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25, where it’s been pinned since 2009. They failed to renew the expanded Child Tax Credit, which for the six months it was enacted in 2021 when it was projected it would reduce the number of American children living in poverty by 40 percent. Also left on the cutting room floor was  universal childcare and pre-K4. Both programs were designed to  also pay a family supporting wage to caregivers and help make it easier for some of the two million women, forced out of the workforce by the pandemic, to return to work.

The Biden win came as New Jersey continued to contend with COVID, a new public health emergency in the form of monkeypox and the confirmation that the polio virus had been flagged next door in New York City’s sewage effluent. 

STRESSED CLIMATE, STRESSED PEOPLE

On August 9, it felt like New Jersey’s climate crisis future was very much here and now.

That day our region was in the grips of prolonged  heat wave, when a 140-year-old, 72- inch water main burst in Essex County, plunging Newark and surrounding communities into a water crisis leaving residents business and even hospitals without water. That same day, as millions of gallons of water flooded the highways and byways, down in Trenton NJ DEP Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette declared a drought watch. 

“Stream flow and ground water levels are falling below normal for most of the state and some reservoirs are showing steep rates of decline as hot and dry conditions continue,” LaTourette said in a statement.  

But it’s not just the climate that’s stressed more than two years into a pandemic that’s killed more than a million American and sickened tens of millions, leaving many struggling with long term symptoms.

The same day as the water main break, NJ Spotlight TV correspondent Raven Santana filed a comprehensive report on how inflation, now at a 40 year high, was placing an unprecedented demand on New Jersey’s network of food pantries as an increasing number of working class families were forced to turn to charity to make ends to meet.

“Many of the people who come to the food pantry actually never came before—did not need to come before but because the economy is so bad, food os so expensive, rent is so high, that even though people do work and make good money, it’s never enough,” Carlos Roldan, director of the Father English Food Pantry in Paterson, told Santana. “So, they have to come here to pick-up laundry detergent, baby it’s, baby food, regular food vegetables, meat—thank God we can provide that.

According to the public TV news source, the Paterson pantry had gone from serving 5,000 needy families a month to 20,000 households requiring the hand out a thousand bags of food a day. 

The situation was even worse in Gloucester County’s Pitman where for the first time since in 13 years, the Angels Community Outreach food pantry had to close its doors because its shelves were empty.

Dr. Stephanie Hoopes is the national director of the United Way’s ALICE project, which was started by the United Way of Northern New Jersey in 2009 to get a better sense of how many of the state’s residents were struggling from week to week to make ends meet. 

The ALICE (asset limited, income constrained, but employed) research project is now operating in 24 states.

Before the pandemic, here in New Jersey, the non-profit estimated 37 percent of New Jersey’s households were ALICE households. Hoopes believes that more than two years into the pandemic, things are still very precarious for these families.

“The summer of 2022 is a critical juncture for many ALICE families,” Hoopes wrote in response to an InsiderNJ query. “Many pandemic supports have long ended, including stimulus payments, the Child Tax Credit, and the eviction moratorium. Yet Covid cases continue, making it hard for some ALICE workers to return to the workforce and causing employment interruptions for others. While ALICE families have been battling inflation at twice the rate of CPI since the Great Recession, the current efforts to tamp down inflation may also be dampening the first real wage increases for ALICE workers in the last decade.” 

 

Hoopes continued. “We continue to be concerned about housing affordability for ALICE families. As reported in our Pandemic Divide report, housing was ALICE’s biggest concern during the pandemic. Now with shifts in the housing market – especially with remote workers and investors buying more suburban, resort and rural housing stock – the 

cost of smaller and low-cost housing units is increasing, often at double-digit rates.”

POWER IN NUMBERS

Rev. Dr. William Barber, co-director of the Poor People’s Campaign, told Democracy Now he felt that while Democrats could “celebrate some things” in the IRA they also had to “wrestle with what is wrong with our politics when, in order to get something good, you’ve got to give up universal pre-K, you’ve got to cut child care, you have to cut elder care, you have to cut child tax credit from the bill, and money for public housing, affordable housing from the bill, you have to cut the expansion of earned income tax credit from the bill, you have to cut closing the Medicaid gap from the bill, you have to cut the millionaire surtax from the bill.”

Barber continued.

“So, we have to honestly say what is historic, but we also have to say what is problematic,” Barber said. “That is our moral right. And because 90% of the things that were cut out will hurt poor people, low-wage people and low-wealth people, who represent 140 million people in this country, 30 percent of the electorate overall and 45 percent in some battleground states, we have to address this. And it is a real — it is a problem that has always been in the midst of American politics.” 

Last October, the Poor People’s Campaign conducted a state-by-state analysis of the level of engagement of this cohort of voters in the 2020 election and reported that of the 1.4 million registered low-income voters in New Jersey, just over one million voted. That means that close to 400,000 sat out the 2020 election. So, while this cohort’s registration rate was close to 80 percent, only 58 percent felt sufficiently engaged to follow through and cast a ballot.

“While low-income voters are not a monolithic group, they represent a significant population of voters that is often overlooked and misunderstood,” according to the Poor People’s Campaign’s analysis. “This report focuses on low-income voters in 2020 and the broader population of eligible low-income voters as an electoral sleeping giant, holding the potential to shift our political maps and reshape our political priorities.”

Like perhaps saving the planet and the people on it?

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