Why even a short delay of Build Back Better will have a long-term impact

Photo by Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash

Somebody made Joe Manchin sad (or maybe the coal millionaire from a coal state whose campaigns are funded by other coal millionaires never had any intention of doing much on climate). This means that the Build Back Better bill is in trouble. At best, it will be postponed until after the holidays. At worst, it’s dead.

Let’s be optimistic and imagine that BBB is passed in the spring, or the summer. You might guess that a delay of another three or six months doesn’t matter very much. But you’d be wrong. Of course, late is better than never, but every day that we delay putting climate solutions into action creates years of extra carbon emissions.

It’s no secret that many of the climate provisions of BBB have been watered down (many of them at the behest of the man who eventually rejected the whole thing anyway). Nevertheless, even a watered-down version would still be the most ambitious attempt to remedy climate change in American history.

One of the most exciting parts of what’s left is a series of subsidies designed to reflect the environmental benefits of green technology. You see, the way our marketplace is set up right now, green technologies (solar panels, electric cars, more efficient electric air conditioners and furnaces, etc.) are usually more expensive than their fossil-burning counterparts. This is because we don’t price the cost of climate change (through a carbon tax or some other mechanism) into the fossil fuels and the technologies that burn them.

Experts are pretty much unanimous in saying that we need to electrify everything in our lives if we’re going to have a shot at tackling climate change. If we get all of the combustion out of our households, and switch our power generation over to carbon-free sources, we will be able to have our creature comforts without adding to global warming. But we’ll never convince most Americans to electrify their home heating and transportation unless it’s economically attractive. The Build Back Better bill would use tax rebates and other incentives to make green technologies price-competitive, making the right environmental choice the right economic choice, as well.

Most of the purchases that can make a big dent in your household’s climate impact are big, expensive purchases that you make very rarely. Transportation and utilities alone make up about half of American households’ carbon output, and most of those emissions come from large, costly, rarely replaced machines like your furnace, water heater, oven, air conditioner, and car.

These are machines that make modern life possible; most of us aren’t going to live without them. They’re all very expensive, costing thousands of dollars. Most of these machines are not things we replace often, or on a whim — have you ever met anybody who dropped thousands of dollars to replace their furnace just because they wanted a new one? Importantly, many of these purchases aren’t planned. When the family car breaks down or the furnace stops working in the winter, people are going to make a quick choice under duress. Nobody’s going to go a couple of years without a water heater to wait for new technology to get cheaper. If they haven’t planned ahead for this unexpected purchase, most people understandably choose the most affordable option.

Most of these big, expensive machines that make modern life so convenient last a really long time. An average gas water heater can last a decade or more. The average car on the road today was made in 2009; they routinely last 15–20 years before they end up in the junkyard. Furnaces installed today can be expected to work until 2041.

All of this means that, for every day we wait to make doing the right thing cheaper, people are going to be buying fossil-burning machines that will put carbon into the atmosphere for decades to come. Let’s take a hopeful view and assume that the Build Back Better subsidies will pass after a six-month delay. In those six months, Americans will have installed over 1.5 million gas furnaces, over 2 million gas water heaters, and more than 8 million new cars. Most of these items will be in use for at least ten years; many of them will last twice as long.

In order to combat climate change, we need to look at the long-term impact of consumer decisions. The climate impact of a car or furnace comes not when it is purchased, but over its lifetime. We need these subsidies in place as soon as possible. Every day that our politicians dither about them, they are committing to years and years of unnecessary carbon emissions.