The Inflation Reduction Act is the Moment Climate Activists Have Been Waiting For
After decades of fighting for significant climate legislation and multiple setbacks by U.S. Senators Manchin and Sinema, we are on the cusp of making prodigious strides in the fight against climate change. The work that environmentalists have invested in for so long truly shows how powerful regular people can be when we come together.
It all started with a commitment from then candidate Joe Biden in 2020 to address the greatest threat of our time by accelerating the development of clean energy technology, to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, to reduce emissions 50–52% below 2005 levels by 2030, to improve our infrastructure, and to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for their willingness to put profits over people. This followed after four years of countless setbacks by the Trump Administration, time that was completely wasted when we could have been pushing forward as leaders of sustainability. The EPA’s credibility was shellacked when Andrew Wheeler, an oil lobbyist, was appointed and so were the abilities of the Department of the Interior. This was mild compared to everything else that followed.
We were withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, witnessed the rollback of clean air and water standards, faced excruciating wildfires and storm systems that were met with less than acceptable responses by the presidency, watched as Trump repeatedly denied climate science, learned of impending drilling projects in sacred places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the administration ignoring calls for change. It’s normal for politicians, and people in general, to present differing views regarding certain political matters because that is vital for a healthy society. Pluralism is a prerequisite for democracy to function, but the populism coupled with anti-science rhetoric we had to suffer under only compounded the crisis. Trump’s presidency wreaked unspeakable havoc on not only the environment but on common decency, polarizing our ability to unite on collective issues.
When Trump was voted out of office, President Biden immediately went to work on several of the aforementioned goals, even going so far as to sign more than ten executive orders after his inauguration ceremony. The bigger targets were reserved for Congress to pass given that the executive branch can only exercise so much power. That was where we first received legislation like the American Rescue Plan to provide much needed relief to those most impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic in addition to small businesses. Even with bills like that one, the path to signature wasn’t easy due to an evenly divided Senate between Democrats and Republicans.
The President soon announced a sweeping plan that was going to cover all aspects of the economy and reshape the middle class from the “bottom up and the middle out.” This was to be known as the Build Back Better Act, comprising measures to expand the child tax credit, lower prescription drug costs, invest in green energy technology/infrastructure, invest in universal Pre-K, expand provisions under the Affordable Care Act, reduce emissions in half by 2030, raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and increase broadband in rural areas among others. The bill was already facing an uphill battle in the Senate not only from the split between parties but from the filibuster. This archaic tactic is not included in the Constitution and allows the minority party to oppose proposed legislation by requiring 60 votes to pass the chamber.
When you do the math, it would call for 10 Republicans to vote with Democrats to pass the bill with all provisions included. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell held a steadfast reign on his fellow conservatives despite having lost his position as Majority Leader, making it impossible for Biden’s party to pursue the traditional route. With that, the only other option was to turn to the concept of Budget Reconciliation which consists of passing legislation that is strictly related to pecuniary matters. Anything that isn’t relevant to the category will be excised by the chamber’s parliamentarian. Bills passed this way don’t require the typical 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, thus securing a victory for Democrats through an exclusive party vote. The only caveat was that all 50 Democrats had to vote in favor of such bills or there would be no forward progress.
Per the rules, certain provisions were inevitably cut out of the original package while others were opposed by Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. They had become notorious for their mostly conservative approach to Senate proceedings, especially for the preservation of the filibuster that they professed was vital to keeping things fair for both sides. This would evolve into a grueling pattern that prevented key objectives from advancing to the House. Namely, Manchin and Sinema disagreed with forgiving student loan debt, raising the minimum wage, expanding the child tax credit, and investing in universal Pre-K. From what began as the most progressive legislation in U.S. history had shrunk to mostly climate, healthcare, and tax reform.
In the months to follow, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and others who wanted to pass the Build Back Better Act repeatedly held palaver with the two resisting members. The situation was growing dim with little hope for any kind of progress much less having them come around to sponsor other legislation. In the interim period, Biden focused on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that was meant to resurrect the nation’s stance in the world. We currently have crumbling bridges, many unpaved roads, a lack of sufficient high-speed rail, communities without access to high-speed internet, dangerous lead water pipes, and not enough green technology to accommodate electric vehicles, solar panels, biomass, and other developing alternatives.
After strenuous dialogue with both Republicans and the conservative Democratic senators, President Biden struck a deal with them in the summer of 2021. This paved the way for easier clearance, fulfilling a part of his goal to move the United States in a direction that released less emissions in conjunction with making our infrastructure more climate change resilient. Activists like myself fought for the bill, utilizing our efforts through organizations like Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Earth Justice, and Evergreen Action. As time moved by, it became clearer why Manchin was apt to be dogged in his stance against climate change solutions.
It was revealed through financial reports that he receives the most campaign donations from fossil fuels than any other senator, not to mention the sizeable amount of money he has in West Virginia’s coal industry. In fact, coal miners from that state urged him to support legislation that would provide access to better healthcare for those who were diagnosed with Black Lung disease. On the other hand, Sinema was adamant in supporting healthcare reform due to her contributions to the pharmaceutical industry. If any breakthrough was going to take place, then compromise would undoubtedly be an essential element.
The race to craft a meaningful deal on the Build Back Better Act was tangible considering the omnipresent effects of climate change that defined the summers of 2021 and 2022. Last year, wildfires smoldered across California, painting the sky a hellish orange, and Death Valley recorded the hottest temperature on Earth. Heat waves cost hundreds of lives in states like Washington and Oregon, sometimes growing so hot that roads and powerlines began to melt. This year has been no different if not worse than the previous summer. To articulate how dire the stakes are, the past six years have been some of the hottest on record.
As with any aim, we sometimes get sidetracked by other pressing developments. When inflation spiked to levels not seen since 1981, even going so far as to hit 9.1%, the conversation switched to the economy and soaring prices that consumers were hit with. Gas prices neared an average of $5 per gallon, groceries were costing people over $200 per shopping trip, baby formula experienced a dangerous shortage, and computer chips underwent a backlog. Despite bills like the Access to Baby Formula Act, the Consumer Fuel Price Gouging Prevention Act, and the Chips and Science Act having been swiftly written, the Build Back Better Bill suffered what felt like the final blow from Senator Manchin. He named inflation as his chief concern for not supporting the climate provisions, leaving only small healthcare reform to pass.
This defeat was demoralizing given the Supreme Court’s recent decision in West Virginia v. EPA that lessened the agency’s authority in regulating carbon emissions along with the limited power of Biden’s executive pursuits. We had been pushing our lawmakers for over a year to finally do something about climate change before it was too late. To have all of that come crashing down in our midst was something inconceivable yet a bleak reality. I had personally emailed the president, my senators, various influencing organizations, and the two senators in question countless times. That was accompanied with submitting letters to the editor of my newspaper, spreading messages of support on social media, and calling people of interest to double their own efforts.
Miraculously, news broke out that Schumer spoke with Manchin and struck a deal in what was called the Inflation Reduction Act, carrying measures to lower emissions 40% by 2030, invest more than $300 billion in renewable energy, allocate $60 billion for environmental justice, create more manufacturing jobs in the U.S., provide training for said jobs, lower prescription drug prices for seniors, reduce the impact of inflation, and make corporations pay their fair share in taxes. It was an astonishing turn of events that caught Republicans off guard and those who were not expecting anything to result from Manchin’s latest letdown. For us, it was more than we could have hoped for.
When you put this bill together with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the executive orders Biden has already signed, we should be on track to meeting the IPCC’s goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. Of course, it’s going to take the world as a whole to achieve what is necessary for future generations to thrive, but this is a major stride from where we were previously. We went from having no chance of getting there at all to placing ourselves on that very path. Indeed, Manchin helped make this happen despite the grievances we hold, but there are compromises to be aware of.
One compromise was some benefits to a few fossil fuel projects, some of them taking place in the Arctic which will unfortunately harm communities there. It was apparently the only way Manchin would accept Schumer’s proposal despite these proceedings being contradictory of what the bill as a whole is aimed to do. Although it’s a travesty for Manchin to have some of his way on the Inflation Reduction Act, we nevertheless have to accept the positives that will come out of it. The fight isn’t over to stop these corporations from determining what kind of energy we’ll rely on. We have to remind ourselves that there will be more days to resume our mission of leaving a better world behind.
Another condition that was set came from Sinema whose status was unknown prior to the vote. She decided to vote in favor of the bill after changes to U.S. taxation of carried interest were excluded from it, proposing a separate measure to address the issue on its own later. This will give corporations a sigh of relief for now after progressives pleaded to reaffirm the commitment to hold them accountable. Instead of carried interest, the Arizona lawmaker evinced approval of another method: an excise tax on stock buybacks. That leaves enough hope for another round of negotiations to fill in the gaps.
Lastly, independent analyses conducted by financial thinktanks, one of them being the Congressional Budget Office, concluded that the Inflation Reduction Act won’t do much to curve inflation levels. One can easily sympathize with the ensuing disappointment this brings, especially when there are millions who are trying to make it through each day. We must not disregard criticism in this aspect. At the same time, Americans should be cognizant of how arduous it is to solve inflation in a short period with or without legislation. The factors that amalgamate the problem are intricately complex and involve the world at large, making it impossible for one president and Congress to solve.
By and large, no legislation is perfect. This is not the end of our vision to foster everlasting change for those to come, but we are extremely grateful to witness how the work that has been at hand over the past few years finally resonated with lawmakers. More importantly, hope has been restored in addressing the challenges that still lie ahead, a victory that couldn’t have been done without unity. Take the time for now to celebrate this historic milestone in the annals of U.S. climate history and don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. There is more work to do!