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Opinion | Climate Change Inaction in Congress Has High Costs

Given that backdrop, the failure of a Democratic president to secure meaningful climate legislation from a Congress under unified Democratic control, even after riding into office on language borrowed from the Green New Deal and declaring warming an existential threat of the first order — it is not going to play well abroad.

But if you’re looking for a reason to be equanimous about future decarbonization, squint and consider this

When Joe Biden talks about cutting emissions in half or Jesse Jenkins calculates how far from that promise his policies will take us, they are not using a baseline of emissions in 2022, when a version of Build Back Better might (conceivably) be enacted; or in 2020, when Biden was elected on a platform promising F.D.R.-sized climate action; or in 2016, when the Paris agreement was ratified. The baseline is 2005, and in fact, judging against that baseline, the country has already cut emissions by about 20 percent, believe it or not.

In fact, American emissions have fallen faster since Barack Obama was elected than he argued would happen if the country passed cap-and-trade legislation in 2010. That bill, and its entire approach to the problem of carbon, famously failed. And nothing replaced it, legislatively, leaving Obama — who had entered the race thinking climate change might be his top priority and who declared that his nomination would be remembered as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” — with only the limited tools of executive action to use. And, crucially, the tailwinds of private-sector changes to harness.

There are probably some gains still to be had from that private-sector momentum, given the remarkable recent decline in the cost of renewable energy — as much as 90 percent cost declines for solar and almost as much for wind in just a decade. But Jenkins and his team have already factored those gains into their analysis. And, in their view, the gains are small — they estimate 500 million tons of additional reductions, about 5 percent of the present total.

Perhaps the true number will be higher, and more gains can be achieved while the legislature sits idle. But that would be the experiment we would be running, more or less: that the country could manage rapid decarbonization without the help of any new federal law (and with a very skeptical Supreme Court standing in the wings). Those market tailwinds are still relatively strong, so the country is likely to keep moving in the right direction, at least, but much more slowly than would be ideal — and much more slowly than anyone dreaming of major climate action before the midterms would count as a success.

So if all those consolations all look like thin gruel to you, well, fair enough. They look that way to me, too.

David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”

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