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The Democrats’ Climate Bill Is a Historic Victory. But We Can’t Stop Here

Thank the people who put their bodies on the line to block new fossil fuel infrastructure – without their grassroots embargo of the Mountain Valley pipeline, for instance, Schumer might not have had the leverage to finally coax Manchin on board.

‘Thank Senator Chuck Schumer, sure, but also thank the staffers who sat in his office, demanding he restart talks on a bill most of Capitol Hill had left for dead.’ ,Photograph: Ken Cedeno/Reuters // The Guardian

I was at a Mets game when news broke that the climate bill had enough votes to pass in the Senate. It was the bottom of the eighth, and Edwin Díaz had just struck out the heart of the Braves’ lineup. The crowd at Citi Field was feeling good. Everyone could sense a win was at hand.

I read the push notification then sat there stunned for several minutes, watching the Mets clinch the game, waiting for the world-shaping news to register. Then suddenly I was tearing up, rising from my seat in a daze, the man down the row giving me a look somewhere between embarrassment and admiration (Jesus, he probably thought. This guy really loves the Mets).

Up in the nosebleeds, moths were circling in the glare of the floodlights. The players looked like figurines, tiny and detailed, far below in their bright diamond. From where we were sitting, we could see tens of thousands of people, every one of whom would be affected – in some way, at some point – by the news that had just buzzed in my pocket. Over the whole scene loomed the logo of Citibank corporation. In the coming days, Citi – along with its peers in the Business Roundtable and US Chamber of Commerce – would abet an all-out blitz to kill the bill.

In the week since the Senate voted 51-50 in favor of the Inflation Reduction Act, I’ve felt a rush of emotion unlike any I’ve experienced in my time as a climate organizer. Joy and rage, relief and apprehension, exhaustion and vigilance – a knot too tight to unravel.

Joy because there is much in the bill that warrants it. According to multiple independent analyses, the bill’s $370bn worth of climate investments will reduce US emissions somewhere in the ballpark of 40% by 2030, equivalent to 4bn metric tons of CO2. According to one recent study, this level of carbon abatement will prevent millions of avoidable deaths, most of them in the global south. The investments are also predicted to generate about 9m domestic jobs, many of them in purple states, potentially creating new and lasting constituencies in support of climate action. And the bill invests $60bn to aid the low-income and communities of color who for decades have served as dumping grounds of our nation’s dirtiest and most dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure. This is an unprecedented increase in federal environmental justice funding – and a far cry from the climate reparations that are actually owed.

Long the villain of global climate talks, passage of the bill will go a long way toward helping the US meet its obligations under the Paris climate agreement, and afford it newfound leverage in convincing other nations to do the same. Combined with recent climate policy breakthroughs everywhere from Chile, to Germany, to Australia, the bill makes it somewhat less likely (though still far from impossible) that we will breach a civilization-ending tipping point – and significantly more likely that the 2020s will witness a marked acceleration in renewable energy deployment.

These moral goods are worthy of real celebration, especially given the bill’s almost miraculous resurrection: killed twice over by Joe Manchin before being passed at the last possible moment with the thinnest possible Senate majority.

Like all historical inflection points, its passage was the product of a complex interchange between individuals and institutions, singular moments and longstanding movements. Thank Senator Chuck Schumer, sure, but also thank the staffers who sat in his office, demanding he restart negotiations on a bill most of Capitol Hill had left for dead. Thank President Biden, but also thank the legions of young people who transformed the mainstream Democratic consensus and forced the climate crisis to the top of his policy agenda. Thank the organizers, scientists, wonks and artists who have labored for decades to create the political conditions under which this bill could be passed. Thank the people who put their bodies on the line to block new fossil fuel infrastructure – without their grassroots embargo of the Mountain Valley pipeline, for instance, Schumer might not have had the leverage to finally coax Manchin on board.

Already, public discourse around the IRA is ossifying deep contingency into settled history, transforming the incredibly precarious chain of events that resulted in its passage into the self-evident monolith of “what ultimately happened”. But it remains the case – and this seems vital to keep in mind – that it almost didn’t happen at all. Why? Because our democracy is under siege.

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As soon as Schumer announced the deal, much of corporate America mobilized to destroy it. The Business Roundtable and the US Chamber of Commerce penned letters and blanketed Arizona with ads, railing against its proposed 15% minimum corporate tax rate, and urging Kyrsten Sinema to vote no. Many of their members, including CEOs like Tim Cook of Apple and Andy Jassy of Amazon, have talked a big game on climate in recent years, burnishing their corporate reputations. But faced with the prospect of paying their fair share in taxes, they fought hard to derail the most important climate legislation in US history.

The Republican party, likewise, did everything in its power to kill the bill. Every single Senate Republican voted no, including those few – Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski – who occasionally affect concern over soaring temperatures. This despite American voters supporting the IRA by a 51-point margin, despite Senate Republicans representing 40 million fewer Americans than Senate Democrats. There are various plausible articulations of what the Republican party has become: a protection racket for fossil fuel executives; a millenarian cult, too dug in to change course. Either way, the GOP has proved willing to undermine democracy itself, all to prevent the public from trying to avert disaster.

And then there were Senators Sinema and Manchin, who took the bill hostage out of fealty to their corporate donors. Sinema, who since 2018 has received over $2m in Wall Street campaign donations, managed to preserve indefensible tax breaks for private equity executives, carve-outs that even Larry Summers found appalling. Manchin used his leverage to force through multiple handouts to the fossil fuel industry – an industry that was already one of the richest in world history, and that in recent months has made record profits gouging working people at the pump.

The handouts will allow the industry to force new oil and gas infrastructure into communities that are already suffering the fallout of fossil fuel extraction: cancer clusters, lung disease, ecological devastation. The damage will be felt worst in low-income and non-white communities, particularly in Alaska and the Gulf – communities that the industry has spent decades sacrificing on the altar of their quarterly profits. Manchin, meanwhile, has made millions from his family’s coal business and is one of the biggest beneficiaries of oil and gas dollars in the Senate. No doubt he will make off handsomely.

There is a certain strain of triumphalism that would have us believe these tragedies are necessary and normal: simply the compromise inherent in a democracy. But the grievous flaws in this bill represent a failure, not a triumph, of democracy. In both process and content, the IRA has demonstrated the extent to which our public policy is perverted by unelected corporate shareholders and the politicians they’ve purchased. Legally constituted to hoard profit and distribute risk, many large corporations continue to engage in a kind of normalized depravity, choosing – and this is difficult to overstate – modest tax breaks over the integrity of life on Earth. They are sociopaths in the Athenian forum, amassing power and deflecting accountability, masking their monomania with expensive public relations. Almost everyone suffers from their ruthlessness, but none more so than the communities where they site their drill rigs and pipelines. This is less a commentary on any individual executive than it is on the structure of the limited liability corporation. No entity with so little allegiance to the public should be granted such determinative control over its fate.

When Senator Bernie Sanders tried to make this point on the floor of the Senate (before ultimately voting in favor of the IRA), he was effectively dismissed by Democratic colleagues. Their reluctance to engage was hardly surprising. With the thrill of victory comes the temptation to conflate the world that now is – the new world that has just come into being – with the world as it should be. Maintaining the gap between the two takes moral discipline and political imagination, the kind of cognitive load that few in Congress seem willing to take on. But maintain it we must, or we risk losing the only well from which progress has ever sprung.

It makes sense to celebrate the enormous, hard-won, life-saving victories in this bill. As the longtime climate movement organizer Daniel Hunter reflected in a recent essay, celebrating achievements is crucial for the health of any social movement. “Who will want to join … if it’s all sadness and misery?” he asks. “Who will acknowledge our contributions if we fail to name them ourselves?” Cynicism, in other words, does not build power – only hope can do that.

At the same time, it also makes sense to mourn, to rage, and above all, to organize. The IRA has made abundantly clear that we need to wrest the wheel of our democracy from those who would drive us all off a cliff. As the climate movement recalibrates post-IRA, a political program can be seen emerging from this fact.

It goes back to the movement’s bread and butter: fighting fossil fuel infrastructure tooth and nail, starting with Manchin’s side deal to fast-track pipeline permitting. This struggle must involve everyone, but it should follow the lead of frontline communities who have been fighting pipelines, drill rigs and refineries for decades. It should use IRA-driven declines in fossil fuel demand to its advantage.

There are many other worthy fronts emerging: passing state and local laws that close the still significant distance to our 2030 climate goals; ensuring all new clean energy jobs are also good union jobs; ensuring climate investment dollars flow into the hands of working families, not Wall Street middlemen; incubating a clean energy industry that is regenerative and respectful, not extractive and exploitative. Electorally, it will involve supporting candidates brave enough to channel waxing anti-corporate sentiment across the left and the right in order to discipline corporate overreach – up to and including nationalizing those industries not decarbonizing at the pace required by physics.

All of this will require a new level of emotional acumen, a structure of feeling that permits both fierce jubilation and exacting critique, that sees the big picture without disguising the brush strokes, that can balance priorities when it needs to but also, sometimes, kick down the scales. This is work that never ends, but you can already see it beginning, incubated by the honest, searching debates taking place right now across the climate movement.

As we question, grapple and experiment – as we lead, in other words – our opponents hold fast to their myopia. Blinkered, rigid, selfish to a fault, theirs is a losing ethic, a worldview in retreat. Ours, on the other hand, is advancing toward the helm. May we occupy every inch they concede. May the IRA be the floor, not the ceiling, of our ambition.

[Daniel Sherrell is a climate organizer and the author of Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of our World (Penguin Books)]

After two years of wrangling, false starts and disappointments, it finally happened: America has passed its first-ever climate legislation, moving the country closer to its goal of a decarbonized future and taking a significant step toward helping the planet avert the worst scenarios of climate catastrophe.

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