What if the fate of the world was complicated and also, to most people, a bit boring? What if we got a chance to change the world or even save it, and hardly anyone noticed? I hardly dare to start this essay with the phrase “budget reconciliation” lest you be inspired to click elsewhere right away, but stick with me. This is important and also includes a Britney Spears sighting. Because the budget reconciliation bill is maybe the most important thing happening right now, in the long run, but the least dramatic, at least in how it’s being reported. By important I mean significant, for all of us, for the long-term future, for the lives of ordinary people and for the climate.
When it comes to news, interesting and important are too often adversaries. Maybe it’s partly about human nature. We evolved to pay attention to sudden and dramatic action and small groups and charismatic individuals, to violence and threat and tangible stuff, not to policy maneuvers and pie charts and economic indicators. Or maybe it’s that the news media knows how to cover wars and explosions and scandals and football scores better than legislation that might change the world or meaningful shifts in beliefs and practices. The sudden wins out over the slow, the simple over the complex, the concentrated over things diffused over large areas.
I wrote here about the way the collapse of one building in Florida seemed to get more coverage than the heat dome covering much of North America for a few deadly days in July, during which well over a thousand people died, shellfish by the billion died along the north-west coast, fires broke out, a town burned down, millions suffered and records were broken by leaps and bounds. It was too dispersed and too complex a story to be told in the quick, compact formats of the news. The heat dome was not just a huge disaster, but a sign that the climate was getting more chaotic faster than anticipated.
So wherever you were, at least by implication, it affected you. But it was drowned out by stories that didn’t. Some stories about a famous or intriguing person do have wider repercussions – Britney Spears’s recent struggle for self-determination has given us all a crash course in how abusive the US conservatorship system can be, and how well that intersects with everyday misogyny. Better yet, celebrities like Jane Fonda can function like spotlights, directing our attention to inherently important things, in her case via her Firehouse Fridays, to climate issues and how to do good work on them.
By important I mean things that affect us – us the readers, us the public, us the life on Earth, now and to come. By that measure climate is more important than anything else. When it comes to climate, the stuff that will affect your life and mine and ours is often quite complicated, which can segue smoothly into byzantine or dull, which can merge into the overlooked and ignored. Or it’s slow-moving and undramatic, like the amount of clean power installed and the price of solar panels and the bits of legislation, say, banning gas hookups in new construction or mandating energy efficiency. Every once in a while, it’s like the Line 3 conflict, with an obvious villain in the pipeline company, heroes in the form of the indigenous-led water protectors, and a lot of dramatic action. But a lot of times it is legislation and incrementalism and budgets and big data.
The budget reconciliation bill could be the single most important piece of climate legislation to date in this country, and it’s not certain whether it will pass or what exactly will be in it. Public pressure matters, which is why its low profile is maddening. The budget reconciliation bill is a cornucopia. It will probably include universal childcare and preschool! Medicare expansion! Raising taxes on the wealthy! Gobs of climate action that generates heaps of jobs! Possibly a Climate Conservation Corps, if, as Katie Porter pointed out in a recent talk, people demand it loudly and strongly enough! Repealing fossil fuel subsidies! None of this matters if it doesn’t pass (and there is some drama in the ways Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin are making themselves into obstructionists demanding to be placated).
The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, says that the climate provisions in the bill would reduce US greenhouse gas emissions 45% below 2005 levels by 2030, doing most of the heavy lifting to get us back in line with our 2015 Paris climate pledge. It’s kind of a Green New Deal and it’s a big deal and it’s complicated, and there should be riots in the streets to support it and push it through. If the colossal carbon-dioxide contributor that is the USA finally gets it together, other nations are likely to follow (though of course many are already far ahead of us).
Even though there are a lot of solid articles on the budget reconciliation process and its goals and obstacles and I get some mail from politicians – notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – about it, I see very little talk about it among the people I know and the people I follow. Maybe we’re telling the story wrong. Maybe we need more pieces about how the US Chamber of Commerce and fossil fuel industry would like your grandmother to die of heatstroke and the fossil fuel industry is conspiring for your cousin to drown in a subway. Legislation is what will keep them from doing so.
The budget reconciliation doesn’t fix all our woes. But it does tremendous work, and there is hardly a better place for public attention right now – or a more alarming shortfall of same.
Rebecca Solnit is a Guardian US columnist and the author of Recollections of My Nonexistence and Orwell’s Roses