Climate Still Changes Everything

Climate Still Changes Everything

The U.S. climate movement has largely grown in response to setbacks and defeats. What will it do in the face of an underwhelming victory?

(Tabitha Arnold)

When the Inflation Reduction Act was signed into law last August, it was celebrated as the biggest piece of federal climate legislation ever passed in the United States. This was an astonishingly low bar to clear: the IRA is also the country’s only real climate legislation. If its passage was a dubious landmark, it also stood at the end of an era for a U.S. climate movement galvanized nearly fifteen years earlier by the near-collapse of the UN climate conference in 2009 and the failure of previous federal legislation in 2010. Over the intervening years, the climate movement tacked sharply to the left as it grew more radical in its tactics and more visionary in its demands. The movement has undoubtedly changed the tenor of U.S. politics. But it has also run up against the limits of its power. What comes next?

As early as 2008, when Obama rode the financial crash into the White House, some floated a version of the Green New Deal as a stimulus response. Yet the administration opted instead for a slimmed-down stimulus that included some climate-related subsidies, namely in solar R&D. The administration’s signature climate bill, introduced in 2009 by Representative Henry Waxman and Senator Ed Markey, was its first legislative failure. That legislation, known as Waxman–Markey, proposed to implement a cap-and-trade system in which the state would set a cap on overall emissions and issue emissions permits to businesses that could be traded on a market. The radicalizing right wing of the Republican Party, then taking shape within the Tea Party, cut its teeth on opposing what it branded as “cap-and-tax.” While the bill passed the House in 2009, it needed a supermajority to pass the Senate—one it didn’t have. It never went up for a vote. With Waxman–Markey stalled, Obama went into the 2009 COP15 meeting in Copenhagen with little to show for his lofty climate rhetoric, which had seemed to offer a beacon of hope that a major international climate agreement would finally be possible after eight years of U.S. intransigence under George W. Bush. The negotiations concluded with a weak deal rather than the binding agreement many had hoped for.

The failure of insider strategies at both the domestic and international level radicalized the then-nascent U.S. climate movement. With the window for federal policy firmly shut, many turned to direct action aimed at “keeping it in the ground.” Battles over permitting for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to U.S. refineries and distribution centers, dominated the next few years of climate politics. They were joined by the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, culminating in the massive protest camp of Thanksgiving 2016 led by the Water Protectors of the Standing Rock Sioux. When the Trump administration sought to roll back minimal environmental progress by undoing Obama’s executive actions on climate, exiting the international Paris Agreement, and repealing the Clean Power Plan (which had set emissions limits on U.S. power plants), the climate movement escalated further. In the fall of 2018, a new youth-led wave of activism burst onto the scene, epitomized by Sunrise Movement sit-ins in the United States and Fridays for Future school strikes in Europe.

By early 2019, Markey was back on the climate beat, putting forward a Green New Deal resolution with the rising star of the electoral left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The distance between the two Markey proposals illustrates the growth of the U.S. left over the decade: from Waxman–Markey’s attempt to execute an energy transition through market mechanisms to a robust public investment program seeking to connect climate change to other political and social issues. Imbued with urgency by a new wave of climate alarm—including a 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warning of the need for far-reaching action by 2030 and David Wallace-Wells’s bestseller The Uninhabitable Earth, which catalogued the catastrophic consequences of hitting the upper reaches of temperature change projections—the Green New Deal became the rallying cry of the climate left and the positive vision for a big-tent coalition. It was the flagship climate policy of the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign, which proposed spending $16 trillion over ten years.

Joe Biden never endorsed the Green New Deal. But his Build Back Better (BBB) program clearly took cues from its ambition and vision of linking climate action to other elements of social policy. Upon taking office, Biden proposed major public investments in green infrastructure, targeting job creation and prioritizing investments in “frontline” communities most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Of the approximately $4 trillion in spending outlined in both Biden’s American Jobs Plan and his American Families Plan, the core legislative proposals of the administration’s initial BBB package, about $1 trillion could generously be thought of as climate related. Already inadequate to meet the administration’s own stated goal of cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030, that sum was whittled down further and further as BBB went through cycles of near-death and revival, until Senators Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer finally hammered out an agreement in the summer of 2022.

The result, the euphemistically titled Inflation Reduction Act, contains roughly $370 billion in climate-related spending. Paired with the climate investments contained in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill—in particular, for electrical grid upgrades, transmission lines, and charging stations—it marks a definitive shift away from the minimal market mechanisms of the Waxman–Markey era. But it is also a long way from the vision of the Green New Deal, even in its most mainstream articulations. In place of public-driven investment in public goods and services, the heart of the bill consists of tax credits for private investors and middle-class consumers: green capitalism in the age of the asset economy. For all of Biden’s rhetoric about jobs and justice, benefits for labor and working-class communities are indirect at best; climate justice for those on the front lines is an afterthought.

Where Waxman–Markey worked directly through the market, the IRA’s theory of change relies on the market more indirectly. It bets that subsidies will spur enough innovation to bring down the cost of green technologies and outcompete fossil fuels, while also making U.S. industry more competitive with China. It contains, as many commentators have observed, only carrots for green technology production, with no sticks aimed at reducing fossil fuel use—in fact, it even contains tax credits for the fossil fuel industry to develop “lower-carbon” technologies, a concession forced by Manchin. The IRA’s goals are narrow: instead of investing in public transit and dense, affordable housing, it doubles down on the strategy of replacing internal combustion engines with electric vehicles. Its projected emissions reductions lean heavily on unproven technologies of carbon removal. Politically, where the Green New Deal sought to create a broad constituency for climate action and build power for future fights, the IRA represents a return to the strategy of quiet technocracy. The only people who know what the IRA does are those who already care about climate change. It is the best we have—and it is not nearly good enough.

This special section looks to take stock as we enter a new and uncertain chapter in climate politics. The trajectory from GND to BBB to IRA is instructive, marking both the real gains the left has made and the real limits of what it can deliver. It also puts a new set of questions on the table. Like the broader U.S. left, the U.S. climate movement has largely grown in response to setbacks and defeats. What will it do in the face of an underwhelming victory?

The climate movement has frequently turned to radical tactics in response to electoral disappointment. Just over a year ago, for example, the failure of BBB prompted many to flirt with the idea of blowing up pipelines. But the passage of federal legislation, however limited, has reassured many erstwhile climate radicals that institutional progress is possible. While the left wing of the climate movement has thoroughly catalogued the IRA’s shortcomings, whatever momentum it once had now seems sharply curtailed. This is worrisome, because there is a great deal of work left to be done. For all the bill’s limitations, the billions of dollars it allocates will set up new struggles over implementation, with major downstream effects for the politics of labor and land use. The effects of the IRA, moreover, are already rippling beyond U.S. borders, from a simmering trade dispute with the European Union and heightened competition with China to the expansion of lithium mining in response to rising demand for battery materials.

Amid hype about the rise of green capitalism, meanwhile, the death of fossil capital may have been celebrated prematurely. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent geopolitical fallout have driven up oil and gas prices and spurred investment in new drilling worldwide—including in the Alaskan Arctic, where the Biden administration has recently granted approval to the massive ConocoPhillips Willow Project despite campaign promises to the contrary. In the medium term, the energy squeeze may generate more momentum for transition—but in the near term, demand for fossil fuels is as robust as ever.

While climate is far more central to mainstream politics than it was fifteen years ago, carbon emissions have continued their steady rise. Recent models suggest that temperatures are more likely to stabilize somewhere between 2–3ºC of warming than at 3º or more. But if this has prompted a surprisingly optimistic turn amongst some commentators, it hardly counts as good news. Even this ostensibly “moderate” level of warming significantly exceeds the demand of “1.5º to stay alive” long made by small island states and other vulnerable countries—a goal that a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has stated is all but out of reach. The effects of climate change, which are materializing at much lower temperature increases than once predicted, still threaten devastation for billions worldwide, as evidenced by the deadly floods that swept Pakistan last fall. In recognition of this grim reality, the recent COP27 established a fund for loss and damages caused by climate change—a small but important step in the struggle for climate reparations. The Bridgetown Initiative, championed by Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, seeks to connect global financial reform to the needs of climate-vulnerable countries in the Global South. But climate justice requires much more.

The struggle to decarbonize is just beginning. So too is climate change itself, which will spur novel political developments of its own. The problems and questions addressed here, then, are just a handful of those that will emerge in years to come. There are, after all, few political issues that will remain untouched by warming temperatures, or by the scale of social transformation required to confront the challenge of reducing emissions. Climate, in other words, still changes everything. Our thinking, and our action, will have to keep up.

Alyssa Battistoni teaches political theory at Barnard College. She is the co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal and a member of Dissent’s editorial board.