A Climate Victory Diluted by the Inequity It Will Perpetuate

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022

In early August, most of us had written off the Biden administration's plans for a Democrat-led climate bill. However, in a surprising turn of events, Senate leader Chuck Schumer struck a seemingly out-of-reach deal with Senator Joe Manchin to pass the first significant climate bill in US history. 

It had been 41 years since the US Congress held its first hearings about “global warming,” and 25 years since  the Kyoto Protocol was approved, committing the nations of the world to address the climate crisis.  For decades, the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on US politics kept action at bay.

But over the past decade, the climate and climate justice movements have mobilized millions of people, all over the world, to fight for change.  We elevated the profile of this issue to the highest levels in virtually every sector of the economy, every aspect of our culture, and in one of the US’ two major political parties.  Congress had failed to pass climate legislation dozens of times over the past decades.  Without the mass mobilization of the climate movements, the Schumer-Manchin bill would never have seen the light of day.

The Inflation Reduction Act was signed into law on August 16, 2022, committing $369 billion toward climate emission reduction efforts.

To win Joe Manchin’s vote, however, Democrats accepted major provisions to expand fossil fuel infrastructure and sell out marginalized communities.  The concessions make this historic achievement more than bitter, even painful. It reminds us that something can be monumentally good and bad, at the same time.  

What's monumentally good about it? 

The IRA's climate gains fall into six key areas: clean electricity, clean transportation, clean buildings, clean manufacturing and industrial decarbonization, climate-smart agriculture & forestry, and conservation, environmental and climate justice. 

Through tax credits, consumer rebates, incentive programs, supportive policies, and investments:

  • Solar and wind power will be even more accessible and affordable; 
  • Homes and buildings will be more energy efficient and increasingly electrified; 
  • Cars, trucks, and transportation systems will create less pollution and fewer carbon emissions; 
  • Agriculture will become more sustainable and less carbon-emitting; 
  • Manufacturing and big industries will become less carbon-intensive. 

The Inflation Reduction Act will go a long way toward achieving the US goal of a 50% reduction in greenhouse gasses by 2030 and, based on several analyses,  will: 

"Without a doubt, the IRA is the biggest U.S. investment to date in addressing the existential threat of our current climate crisis and comes at a moment when most climate advocates had given up hope," said Charles Griffith, Ecology Center Climate and Energy Director. "While there is still much work to meet our emissions reduction goals--likely much of it at the state and local level--this breakthrough legislation restores U.S. climate leadership and gives us a fighting chance at tackling the climate crisis." 

What's monumentally bad? 

The IRA's concessions to fossil fuel interests and pipeline operators mean that people will continue to suffer. Neighborhoods of frontline and predominantly BIPOC communities who have borne the brunt of air and water pollution caused by the fossil fuel industry, often referred to as sacrifice zones, will continue to endure injustice. 

Specific concessions include a mandate for offshore oil lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska and requirements tying offshore renewable energy developments to moving forward on federal oil and gas leases. These requirements expand opportunities for the oil and gas industry at the very moment science demands us to  rapidly move away from oil and gas. Furthermore, long-suffering communities – along the Gulf Coast, in northern Alaska, and throughout the country near pipelines, refineries, and other facilities – should not be forced to bear the insults to their health and environment.   

While the IRA incentivizes a range of cleaner, low-carbon energy sources and technologies, it does little to regulate oil, gas, and coal.  Its fossil fuel provisions actually do the opposite, perpetuating fossil-fuel sacrifice zones. In a final effort to pass the act, Senator Schumer also agreed to support a separate side-deal to strip environmental protections, jeopardize public health, and fast-track fossil fuel projects.

"We can't separate climate justice from climate action. Doing that will only perpetuate existing injustices and further harm communities that are already overburdened. This is a critical time and an important opportunity to take a stand for justice," said Kathryn Savoie, Ecology Center Director of Equity and Environmental Justice.

The Ecology Center has signed on to letters organized by our environmental justice partners calling on President Biden to take executive action to crack down on fossil fuels. There is still time to fight the Manchin-Schumer side-deal. Biden should declare a climate emergency, and Congress should block all efforts to bolster the antiquated and damaging fossil fuel industry. 

To put it all in context, consider this:  the Inflation Reduction Act devotes only 3% as much money to fighting the climate crisis as the original Green New Deal proposal.  It is less than one-third the size of President Biden’s Build Back Better proposal, which the House of Representatives passed last year.  Yet it makes an unprecedented investment in clean energy, when we need it the most.

For all of us who’ve been fighting for decades to get our leaders to address the climate crisis, it is a historic moment.  We are getting nowhere close to what we asked for, but we are getting so much more than seemed possible one month ago.  The Inflation Reduction Act will jump-start the clean energy transition in the United States, but we’re still going to need to fight for more, and soon, to meet the demands of Nature and our fast-dwindling carbon budget.

We are also going to need to fight the Manchin side-deal, to protect environmental laws and regulations that give communities a small measure of input about the siting and expansion of new pipelines and oil and gas developments. To reach the vision of a just and thriving clean energy economy, it will take even bigger and stronger climate justice activism, along with stronger and more decisive climate leadership to eliminate sacrifice zones so that ALL people benefit.