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Far be it for us to suggest Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema might be out of touch, even after the conservative Democrat so theatrically voted down a minimum-wage hike a few months back, but Friday's edition of Politico Playbook did point to something of a disconnect. "Sinema is not letting [the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework] or the reconciliation bill get in the way of her summer plans," the insider tip sheet crooned. "When Chuck Schumer announced earlier this month that he might keep the Senate in session into August—delaying a previously scheduled recess in order to shepherd the two gigantic bills through the chamber—Sinema told the majority leader that she was not sticking around to vote, multiple Senate sources tell Playbook." And why was that? "She had prior vacation plans, she said, and wasn’t about to let the infrastructure or reconciliation bills get in the way."
Very cool! Maybe it's considered old-fashioned politics these days, but time was that you wouldn't openly admit your obligations as a United States senator—which already take up a scant portion of your time compared to most people's jobs—are a secondary consideration. This is fairly shameless, the conduct of someone who seemingly does not fear facing consequences from her constituents—though the polling among Arizona Democrats might suggest otherwise—or even from the majority leader of their own party. The latter is a measure of Sinema's very real power in the 50-50 Senate, a level of influence she is currently wielding to throw cold water on the budget reconciliation bill the Democrats are sliding along a parallel track to the bipartisan agreement of which Sinema extolled the virtues this week.
Like West Virginia's Joe Manchin, the other most conservative Democrat in the federal legislature's upper chamber, Sinema is making noise about the $3.5 trillion price tag on the reconciliation bill. (Manchin was, according to Playbook, booed—jokingly, by some accounts—at a Democratic caucus meeting this week for bringing up deficit concerns.) That is indeed a lot of money, though it's a bit more than half what progressive Democrats initially hoped for. (They already see the $3.5 trillion sum as a compromise, and will begin to fight back if much more is cut out. Meanwhile, if Manchin and Sinema are serious about truly imperiling the reconciliation bill, that could effectively kill the bipartisan bill in the House, where Democrats have only three votes to spare and the progressive caucus could easily rally to defeat it unless and until the reconciliation bill comes along, too.) But fixing the nation's infrastructure is a little like renovating a house, anyway—in this case, a dilapidated one. You can pay a hefty chunk now, or you can get absolutely hosed when the roof caves in later.
This is particularly true on climate. We're already spending about $100 billion a year on disaster cleanup for hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, and floods, and all of these things are set to get more frequently calamitous as we continue to destabilize our ecosystems through the next-order effects of pumping carbon into the atmosphere. Just think about what we've seen over these last two months, as the June of Doom bled over into July: a catastrophic "heat dome" in the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Heat waves all over the country. Massive wildfires out West that sent dangerously unhealthy air floating over to the Eastern Seaboard—and that, apparently, can generate their own weather systems. Extreme precipitation events flooding out our cities—and Germany, and China. The drought in the American Southwest is calcifying into what we will soon have to recognize as "aridification." The water wars are beginning out there, and soon they'll be all over the place—just one of the human conflicts that will emerge as vital resources become scarce and people get on the move when their homelands become unlivable. Do we think the response to all these layered and interconnected threats will be cheap?
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For Senator Sinema's sake, we ought to just look at Arizona. The forecast? Not good. According to a report from the EPA published January 19, 2017—perhaps they were aware that the climate inside the Executive Branch was about to change considerably—the state has already warmed two degrees in the last century and things are only getting worse. "Heat waves are becoming more common, and snow is melting earlier in spring. In the coming decades, changing the climate is likely to decrease the flow of water in the Colorado River, threaten the health of livestock, increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires, and convert some rangelands to desert."
Heat, drought, fire, aridification. That Colorado River portion is particularly important, considering it is a water source for Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona and California. These states entered into an agreement around water use in 1922, the Colorado River Compact, but those ties are already beginning to fray and the disputes will only grow as the river dries up. Water will simultaneously be in more demand and less available. (Just check out Lake Mead.) The EPA suggests this is likely to decimate Arizona's three agricultural staples—cattle, dairy, and vegetables—in a state where two thirds of farms are irrigated. The agency adds the drier conditions will give trees and other vegetation less strength to mount a defense against pests like bark beetles. Other pests that normally would be killed off by winter temperatures may survive because the temperature may never dip that low. It will get so hot that it will just kill people, also. And of course, all of this will fall disproportionately on Native communities in Arizona, like the Navajo Nation.
This is the kind of stuff that drives prognostication that parts of Arizona—by one model, six counties—will become unlivable in the coming decades. One can't help but fear that's an undercount. In the worst projections, swathes of the American Southwest will become inhospitable to human civilization as we know it far sooner than most people are prepared to grapple with. In the meantime, the changing conditions prompt accounts like this one from Michael A. Crimmins, a professor of environmental science at the University of Arizona, in the Washington Post:
As I drove from Phoenix to Tucson under skies darkened from several large wildfires on Sunday, I watched the thermometer on my car hover between 115 and 117. In truth, once you are acclimated, temperatures around 100 can feel comfortable on a dry day, but I don’t think you ever get used to 110 or higher. ... Record highs were set for five straight days in Tucson, and Phoenix observed temperatures hitting 115 with several daily records falling. Overnight lows were above 90 for several nights in Phoenix as the heat wave persisted, giving temperatures a head start to soar to record levels the next day.
It's often that overnight heat that kills people and further overwhelms the power grid.
All this is to say that it may be close to impossible to spend too much on decarbonizing our society. Anything we spend now will offset far greater costs—in disaster cleanups, in relocating people, in resolving vicious and desperate conflicts—in the future. We may well look back on $3.5 trillion as a drop in the bucket. And that particularly goes for Arizona, for which we can all hope for the best, but which we need to acknowledge may be drifting more towards Mad Max than the promised land. Just something to keep in mind while reviewing our national plans for climate investment, Senator Sinema. How about we get to work on those power lines.
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