The WAP we need
The original WAP is a highly effective climate program with the potential to contribute greatly to pandemic-related economic relief.
By now, you’re likely familiar with WAP, the new bop about sexuality and vaginal health from Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion.
(If not, please refer to either this summary article about it or this video of Desus & Mero making fun of Ben Shapiro’s reaction to it. Or just watch the music video below. Maybe have coffee first.)
You might not, however, be familiar with WAP, the longstanding U.S. Department of Energy conservation program for low-income families.
Shorthand for Weatherization Assistance Program, WAP provides grants for energy efficiency upgrades, allowing low-income households to significantly lower their electric, heat and water bills.
Titillated yet? I hope so. Because while I fully support WAP’s new life as an empowerment acronym, I’m hoping we might also use this moment to draw attention to the original WAP.
If Congress were to consider an expansion of the historically effective and bipartisan program in a future coronavirus relief package, it could potentially aid low-income families struggling during the pandemic, while helping to chip away at the climate crisis.
(This is also the latest in this newsletter’s long-running quest to prove that every single news story can be a climate story if you try hard enough. Previous examples include: CrossFit, online dating, remote work, and the Super Bowl. Have a suggestion for something silly I should turn into a climate story? Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
There’s some holes in this house
Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s WAP begins by acknowledging the presence of “whores in this house.”
Conversely, the Department of Energy’s WAP began in 1976 by acknowledging the problem of “holes in this house”—that is, areas in buildings where energy can easily escape, thus making the building more expensive to heat and cool.
The core idea of WAP is that it provides grants for “weatherization”—a process that helps reduce energy costs in buildings by “sealing up holes in walls and windows, adding insulation, or replacing heating and cooling equipment.” It gives these grants primarily to low-income families who are struggling to pay their bills.
And WAP has, historically, had lots of bang for its buck. In 2010 alone, the program upgraded more than 340,000 homes; achieved energy savings of more than $1.1 billion and health-related savings of more than $3.6 billion; supported 28,000 jobs; increased economic output by $4 billion; and reduced carbon emissions by 7.3 million metric tons, among many other benefits recorded by the Oak Ridge National Lab.
For every dollar spent on WAP, Oak Ridge added that $4.50 in energy savings, health, and safety benefits was returned to the economy.
(Shout out to @climemechange for pointing me to the original WAP).
Certified LEED, seven days a week
Because of its combined economic, environmental and health benefits—and its direct help to low-income Americans—WAP has consistently enjoyed strong support in Congress.
That support has also been consistently bipartisan. As the Post’s Dino Grandoni documented in 2018, “Fourteen Democratic and Republican attorneys general wrote a letter asking Congress to support of program. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the program “vital funding to Alaska” when introducing a bill last year with her Democratic counterpart, Sen. Maria Cantwell, to reauthorize it.”
Still, that hasn’t prevented the Trump administration from trying to eliminate it during a pandemic where millions of Americans are struggling to pay their electricity bills.
The pullout game
The Trump administration has tried to get rid of WAP every fiscal year, attempting to pull out of the program entirely in all of its proposed budgets to Congress. This includes the budget Trump proposed for fiscal year 2021, just as the coronavirus was taking hold of the country.
In addition, Trump reportedly suggested cutting $37 million from a similar program to WAP that provides heating and cooling for low-income families as part of his original coronavirus proposal.
Those proposed cuts were been repeatedly condemned by consumer advocates, industry advocates, poverty advocates, and climate advocates. In turn, Congress never accepted them, and WAP remains in place.
But now, some researchers are calling for not just a preservation, but an expansion of energy assistance programs like WAP as coronavirus worsens. Because now more than ever, Americans are struggling to pay their energy bills and keep the lights on—thus becoming more at risk for even more health and economic consequences.
The case for more WAP
“Before 2020, energy insecurity was expected to worsen due to rising energy costs, coupled with more frequent heat waves and cold spells due to climate change,” Indiana University researchers Sanya Carley and David Konisky wrote in the Conversation last month. “Now the COVID-19 pandemic presents an additional, unprecedented challenge.”
A nationally representative survey Carley and Konisky took in May showed that 13 percent of Americans were unable to pay their electricity bill the month prior. Nine percent had received an electricity utility shutoff notice; and 4 percent had their electric utility service disconnected. Those struggling were also disproportionately Black and Hispanic.
Source: The Conversation.
The researchers expect this trend to worsen as the coronavirus drags on. “The combination of rising energy use and falling incomes is likely to increase low-income households’ energy burdens—the proportion of their incomes they spend on energy,” they wrote. “We expect that this trend will move a whole new population of households into energy insecurity. Some may try to cope without important energy uses, such as air conditioning, fans and refrigeration.”
To prevent that outcome, they propose a handful of steps Congress could take, including—you guessed it—an increase in funding for WAP.
“This program represents a longer-term solution that can help low-income households save money on energy bills by repairing and upgrading key components like furnaces and ducts, and ensuring that houses are well insulated, sealed and ventilated,” they write.
The other long-term benefit of expanding WAP, of course, would be a decrease in carbon emissions, thereby decreasing the long-term health and economic risks of the climate crisis.
But when it comes to both coronavirus and climate change, Congress has so far shown little understanding of the need for long-term solutions. So it’s likely that for now, WAP will remain as it’s always been—an obvious, easy win, yet somehow too complicated for the men in charge to understand.
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