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Biden’s new pitch: Saving the planet saves families’ money

Economic benefits of climate policy win out over environmentalism

President Joe Biden shakes hands with Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi after delivering the State of the Union address on Tuesday.
President Joe Biden shakes hands with Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi after delivering the State of the Union address on Tuesday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden made a new pitch for reviving stalled climate proposals during his State of the Union address, but he emphasized their potential benefits for consumers rather than hammering on the need to save the planet.

Biden’s Tuesday speech avoided using the “Build Back Better” label his party previously used for its proposed budget reconciliation package, but he touted individual provisions that would make homes and businesses more energy efficient, boost domestic solar and wind production and lower the price of electric vehicles.

“Let’s cut energy costs for families an average of $500 a year by combatting climate change,” Biden said.

That figure tracks with an October report from Rhodium Group, an independent research firm, that examined what would happen if Congress and the executive branch worked together to adopt a slate of climate actions. The report noted that opponents of such moves warn shifting away from cheap fossil fuels will result in higher household heating bills, electric costs and gasoline prices.

“We find that the opposite is true in our joint action scenario,” the report says. “There are costs associated with cleaning the grid and regulating (greenhouse gas emissions) from power plants, vehicles and natural production. But consumers are cushioned from these costs due to three factors.”

The first factor: tax credits subsidizing industry compliance would reduce the costs passed on to consumers, shifting them instead to the federal treasury.

The second factor: improving energy efficiency reduces the amount of energy required by consumers.

The third factor: shifting the power sector away from fossil fuels would lead to lower natural gas demand and lower natural gas prices for all economic sectors.

“The result is that in 2030, national average annual household energy costs are $411-$566 lower than they were in 2020 and roughly $500 lower than under current policy,” according to the report.

Biden’s speech came the day after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report, one that painted a bleak picture of the severe impacts already here and likely to increase with climate change. Biden did not mention the report in his speech, in which he devoted significant time to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Gas prices

His choice to tout consumer benefits comes as Republicans such as Sen. Steve Daines of Montana and John Barrasso of Wyoming have vehemently attacked his energy policies, blaming them for high gas prices.

“President Biden’s claim that American families will save money under his climate plan is an illusion. Biden’s war on domestic energy has driven up the price of energy for American families,” Barrasso said in a statement that called for expanding availability of all energy sources.

Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the reality is that climate change is costing Americans billions every year through extreme weather events regardless of the price at the pump. The United States should follow the lead of countries like Germany as it accelerates a transition to renewable energy, Hartl said. Hartl agreed standing up for Ukraine is the right thing to do.

“But fighting climate change is also a moral imperative, as we are leaving future generations a potentially unlivable planet and the human misery that is happening and will get ever worse will easily dwarf what is occurring in Ukraine,” Hartl said. “The Pentagon — even under Trump — recognized that climate change represents one of the gravest threats to geopolitical stability, and the President could have connected the dots better in a far more compelling manner.”

Tiernan Sittenfeld, the League of Conservation Voters’ senior vice president of government affairs, said Wednesday that the IPCC report makes clear time is up for tackling climate change and that people are seeing impacts today in the form of more intense wildfires, floods, storms and droughts.

“But the good news is that the solutions are win-win-win,” Sittenfeld said. “They are going to help rebuild our economy in a more equitable and just way. They’re going to stave off even worse catastrophes and they also are responsive to the pain that people are feeling in higher home heating bills, the pain at the pump.”

Charlie Ellsworth is a partner at Pioneer Public Affairs, a firm focused on climate advocacy and clean energy strategy, and a former Democratic Senate leadership aide.

He said the American people understand the broader consequences of climate change, but getting the stalled legislation passed now requires winning support from a small group of moderate Democrats who are focused on inflation and consumer impact.

“That’s the lens through which they view the issue,” Ellsworth said.

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