Decades of willfully moronic Republicans bringing snowballs onto the Senate floor to argue that climate change is a hoax. Decades of debate about carbon taxes and carbon offsets. Decades of rallies in D.C. and hoping that the next hurricane or drought or heat wave will wake up Americans to the risks of living on a superheated planet. Decades of coral reefs crumbling and species disappearing and the curve of CO2 in the atmosphere rising ever upward. Decades of loss, of rage, of fragile hope.
But now, with the climate deal (officially known as the Inflation Reduction Act) President Joe Biden signed a few weeks ago, everything has changed. Over the next decade, the bulk of $369 billion will flow into clean energy, transforming America’s energy landscape. To help guide the rivers of cash into the most useful hands, Biden brought in Washington, D.C., insider and longtime climate advocate John Podesta. There is money for unsexy things like speeding the replacement of gas furnaces with heat pumps and better insulating homes in low-income neighborhoods. There is money for big-ticket investments like new battery factories and transmission lines. But most of all, there is a sense that, with this bill, America has crossed the climate Rubicon. It’s not that the climate fight is over — in fact, it has barely begun. But now the movement needs to transition from fighting to pass a climate bill to fighting to make sure that the bill we have works, and that it’s not just defended, but expanded to the point where the country is on track to do what needs to be done — and we need to do all of that quickly.
“It’s hard to grasp what a new environment we’re in,” says Jamie Henn, a longtime activist and director of Fossil Free Media. “So many people I’ve talked to in the movement — from funders to clean-energy people to folks working on finance to frontline activists — feel like we need to rethink our strategies entirely.”
At the top of the list is the simple fact that for 30 years, the climate movement has oftentimes mobilized itself against things — coal plants, pipelines, SUVs. Now, Henn argues, the challenge is not just installing green-energy infrastructure, it’s also convincing people that a green-energy future is achievable. “Over the last decade we’ve actually convinced people that climate change is real, so much to the point that people are thoroughly depressed about it all the time,” he says. “Now we need to convince them that they can actually do something about it, that we have the tools to start confronting this crisis.”
To achieve this, activists will have to change their sales pitch. “The climate movement has to go out and sell this to people and make it more populist,” says Faiz Shakir, a former political adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders. “The goal now, when government acts, is to show people how and why it acted to benefit you.”
What’s also critical right now is making sure that these climate-bill investments are not derailed by lobbyists and beltway insiders — and that it actually gets to the people and projects that need it most.
Leah Stokes, a professor of climate and energy policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, coined “the fog of enactment” — a term for the time in a policymaking process during which details get lost and people don’t know what is going on. “Implementation is a very tricky time, when activists are less energized, and corporate interests more engaged,” says Stokes. “Corporations have teams of lobbyists who can track everything and exert influence when necessary. That’s not what a lot of climate groups are set up for — or good at.”
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, is particularly wary of the newly established national green bank, which will have $27 billion to dole out to clean-energy projects: “If underserved frontline communities are supposed to get 40 percent of this funding, what does that look like? Who has say over what projects get funded and whether the funding actually gets to the communities?”
Proposals for new planet-cooking fossil-fuel projects haven’t vanished. For one thing, bundled with the clean-energy investments in the climate bill is a provision that requires the federal government to auction off drilling leases on public lands and waters before it could permit solar and wind projects — tying renewable-energy development to fossil fuels. Even worse, as part of the deal to sign the climate bill, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin cut a backroom deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to reform permitting rules for big infrastructure. Permitting is indeed a problem given the amount of infrastructure that needs to get built fast, but in this case, the deal looks more like a stalking horse for the 300-mile-long Mountain Valley Pipeline, which carries fracking gas from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. (I wrote more about the politics of the backroom deal a few weeks ago.) Justin Guay, the director for global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project, calls the permitting agreement “a side deal with a coal baron that the climate movement neither recognizes nor honors.”
Right now, Schumer is planning to attach the permitting bill to a stopgap funding measure that must pass by Sept. 30 to avert a government shutdown. But climate hawks are pushing the Democratic National Committee members to vote on a resolution blasting the side-deal at a DNC meeting in Washington DC today. The resolution probably won’t pass, but at least it will force moderate Dems to acknowledge the many frontline activists who are angry and feel betrayed by the side-deal (and who are holding a big rally in DC today).
As Russell Chisholm, a longtime environmental-justice organizer and the Mountain Valley Watch coordinator of the Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights coalition, puts it: “People in frontline communities are fed up with this. Frontline communities are never in the room when these deals are cut. If members of Congress are going to approve this permitting deal for more fossil-fuel infrastructure, they should say it directly to everyone who lives upstream and downstream of these projects: ‘We are OK with sacrificing y’all to get this climate bill.’ ”
Then there are the largely forgotten environmental nightmares like mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia, which continues despite its devastating impacts on local communities. “When leaders in environmental organizations chose to fight climate change in a top-down fashion, they left the mountaintop-removal fight,” says Maria Gunnoe, director of the Mother Jones Community Foundation and a longtime West Virginia coal warrior. “It just seems to me like if we can’t end mountaintop removal and rebuild the former coal fields, then the entire climate plan is wronghearted.”
But there are also subtler, more insidious threats from the fossil-fuel industry. Many oil and gas companies are recognizing that there’s more money to be made in being part of the clean-energy revolution than in fighting it directly. Big Oil companies like Occidental Petroleum, one of the biggest frackers in Texas’ Permian Basin, is moving aggressively into clean energy. Or into what they want you to believe is clean energy, anyway. Oxy is the best-performing stock on the S&P 500 this year, earning $3.7 billion in profit in the second quarter of the year alone. Now it wants to become “the Tesla of carbon capture,” which is a slick way of saying it wants to build machines that suck carbon out of the air and allow it to market what it calls, with Orwellian panache, “net-zero oil.” Anybody want to bet the future of a habitable planet on net-zero oil?
For Big Oil, this is not a new game. Twenty years after BP promised that the company’s initials stood not for “British Petroleum,” but for “Beyond Petroleum,” it’s still producing 2 million barrels of oil a day. Now, carbon monsters like BP, ExxonMobil, and Chevron are redoubling their efforts to convince you that they are good planetary citizens. ExxonMobil even pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. But it only applies to their operational emissions, which is a tiny fraction of the emissions of the oil and gas they pump out of the ground. This is the kind of sleight of hand you can expect more of from big oil and gas companies going forward.
Some of it will be real, but most of it will be PR. “These companies know how to do one thing, and that is drill holes in the ground and pump stuff out,” Stokes says. Henn predicts “a tsunami of greenwashing” from the industry as it attempts to claim space that’s been opened up in the clean-energy economy. “Look, I want to get carbon out of the atmosphere,” Henn continues, “but this is such an opportunity to remake our society. But if we just perpetuate the same harms in a clean-energy economy, and it’s just a world of Exxons and Elon Musks — oh, man, what a nightmare.”
The clean-energy makeover isn’t limited to fossil-fuel companies. Virtually every big corporation is touting net-zero goals that depend on carbon offsets to buy their way into climate heaven. Carbon offsets allow companies (or individuals, for that matter) to continue to pollute — as long as they “offset” that pollution by planting trees or burying the carbon in the soil. (For more about how this game is played, watch John Oliver’s brilliant riff on offsets). The problem with offsets is not only that many of them aren’t real. It’s also that they perpetuate the fantasy that solving the climate crisis can be achieved without changing your politics.
But the biggest challenge for the movement may be what happens when the brutal reality of the climate crisis overtakes the hope and enthusiasm inspired by the climate deal. “The latest IPCC report is telling us that we are at the cataclysmic edge of the land of no return,” says climate scientist Peter Kalmus, arguing that the media needs to communicate the urgency of the situation to the public, and the public needs to demand that urgency from politicians — both to fix what’s wrong with this climate bill and to pass more, and better, climate bills soon. “We’re not treating climate breakdown like an emergency. As a society, if we want to save ourselves, we need to do much more, much faster.”
Kalmus points out that the level of spending in the climate bill is $37 billion a year for a decade. In contrast, the budget for the U.S. Department of Defense for the fiscal year of 2023 alone is $773 billion. “In an odd way, that gives me hope,” says Kalmus. “Imagine if we spent 50 percent of the military budget to end fossil fuels. We could stop this so much faster than anyone is talking about.”
If that seems impossible to imagine — well, the passage of the climate bill itself is evidence to the contrary. The climate crisis is not just changing the natural world — it’s also changing the dynamics of American politics in unpredictable ways. Among other things, it’s bringing frontline activists from Alaska and Appalachia together to fight not just against further expansion of fossil fuels, but also for their fundamental human right — and all of our rights — to live on a habitable planet. “This is a movement that has just begun,” says Chisholm.
“One of the big lessons of the climate deal is just the value of persistence,” argues Táíwò. “Something like this didn’t seem politically possible just a handful of years ago. Now, it’s happening. And it’s a testament to the people who acted like it was possible all through those years, even while it seemed impossible.”