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What’s Next for the Climate Left? The IRA Is an Invitation to Organizers

The Inflation Reduction Act would not have happened without the movement for a Green New Deal, but it shouldn’t be confused for one. The climate left now faces a novel problem: how to deal with having won something—and keep fighting for more.

The Inflation Reduction Act is a huge victory in this existential fight - Climate activists demonstrate at the White House, 2021,Photo credit: CNN

It’s understandably hard for those who supported Green New Deal proposals for transformative investments in public goods to see the IRA—a bundle of tax credits whose benefits accrue largely to corporations—as a consolation prize. For the many climate hawks galvanized by Bernie Sanders’s bid for the Democratic nomination in 2020, it’s also a far cry from what, for a moment, looked to be within striking distance: governing power.

In some ways the IRA’s passage—and Republicans taking back the House a few months later—marks a return to normal for the climate left. But Democratic Party politics have changed. Top Democratic policymakers openly discuss the need for industrial policy (what one International Monetary Fund paper dubs “the policy that shall not be named”), and hundreds of billions of dollars will soon go out the door to build up domestic supply chains for things like battery storage and critical minerals. In practice, however, that means letting the public sector shoulder the risks of an energy transition while the private sector reaps the rewards. By all accounts the White House seems to imagine climate policy as the project of turning clean energy technologies into a more attractive asset class for investors.

None of this obviates the need for a Green New Deal. Every path to staving off runaway climate catastrophe runs through enormous investments to scale up zero-carbon energy and a simultaneous, brutal confrontation with the fossil fuel industry. Even given unlimited resources, the former simply won’t overpower the latter fast enough. Trillions of dollars in future revenue—coal, oil, and gas that has yet to be dug up and burned—need to be made worthless, even when the market disagrees. Only the state can keep a company from doing what is profitable.

The Green New Deal’s basic political calculus for making the state do that still holds, too: getting to zero emissions requires giving people a reason to be excited about the awe-inspiring project of decarbonization and to come to its defense at the ballot box and beyond. Decarbonization should make the kinds of changes in people’s lives that inspire them to name children after the president they deem responsible. No one will name their kid Biden because they got a $7,500 rebate on a Chevy Bolt.

If winning a Green New Deal is still necessary (it is), then the path to it will be a strange one. A product of the left having shifted the debate on climate and economic policy is that it’s also created a new organizing challenge for itself: how do you build durable democratic majorities for climate action as political elites align around a fundamentally undemocratic vision for what decarbonization should look like?

The IRA has made some uneasy progress toward the first half of the climate challenge (investment) while avoiding the second (confrontation). Since the war in Ukraine began, the Biden administration has in fact doubled down on fossil fuel extraction, chiding oil and gas companies for not producing more to keep prices down and export fuel to our European allies. Still, the process of building a suite of green industries promises to inflate those industries’ political importance, too. They stand to grow in absolute terms—raking in the IRA’s $270 billion worth of tax credits—and in influence, as strategic industries in the eyes of policymakers eager to court their business. The question is whether legacy automakers building electric vehicles, foreign-owned battery manufacturers, start-up lithium prospectors, and other IRA beneficiaries can act as a counterweight to the fossil fuel industry. The current, modest hope is that the green manufacturing and renewable power sectors might become a louder voice in the ear of some number of politicians—at the local, state, and regional level—than coal, oil, and gas firms.

The more difficult part is not leaving the terms of the energy transition up to those for-profit firms, ceding decisions about what investments happen where and how fast to entities whose sole purpose is making money. Even though the IRA presupposes a private sector-led transition, battles over its implementation can be a venue for building the sorts of political constituencies and expertise needed for a more democratic transition—and to take on the fossil fuel industry.

Among the most exciting parts of the IRA is the invitation it presents for organizers to create proof of concept for public power as an alternative to for-profit energy. While for decades only private companies with massive tax liability were able to use renewable energy tax credits, public power providers, local and tribal governments, and others can now take advantage of an uncapped pool of IRA-provided funds to construct their own not-for-profit clean energy installations. Municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives can broadcast the benefits of public investment from the Texas Hill Country to the Tennessee Valley, touting job creation and cheaper energy bills. Climate campaigners could join forces with unionized utility workers to demand that free money from the IRA for everything from transmission lines to energy efficiency isn’t left on the table.

Blue states and cities pursuing more aggressive climate action than the federal government doesn’t add up to a national plan. But such projects offer opportunities for open-air experimentation in how to make decarbonization work. Efforts like the Boston Green New Deal, for instance, can be a test run for a national version. Under the leadership of Mayor Michelle Wu, the city is now in the process of rolling out a program to fund retrofits for apartments in large, income-restricted buildings—with $50,000 committed per unit—slashing the city’s biggest source of emissions while providing tangible quality of life improvements for working-class residents. This will help build a stock of progressive technocrats who know the nuts and bolts of how to retrofit buildings and make the case to voters that electing people who run on a Green New Deal, like Wu, can make their lives better in the short term, whetting appetites for transformative climate policy with smaller changes they can see and feel in the here and now.

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We shouldn’t be pollyannaish about where things stand: the forces backing a Green New Deal lost. But they had enough power to fundamentally shift debates at the highest level about what climate policy in the twenty-first century should look like, convincing lawmakers to abandon their commitment to narrow market tweaks and to focus instead on investment and job creation. The weakness of the bill that resulted from that shift reflected the power of polluters and a private sector eager to have the state step in to subsidize its profits. For better and for worse, the product of that tortured Beltway compromise is now the ground on which something more expansive and democratic might be built. It’s time to get ready to win and run the big green state in the new normal the Green New Deal created.

[Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at the New Republic and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. She is the author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet and How We Fight Back, as well as a member of Dissent’s editorial board.]