Does the Climate Bill Throw Environmental Justice Under the Bus?

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Covering Climate NowThis story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration cofounded by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation strengthening coverage of the climate story.

  1. Is the new climate bill as big a deal as they say?

    Yes.

  2. Is it big enough to save us?

    No, not by itself.

  3. Does it throw environmental justice under the bus?

    Yes, as usual, but Manchin might be in for a surprise.

  4. Will Republicans keep getting a pass on climate?

    We’ll see between now and the November midterms.

The first of the above four questions is the easiest call. The bill Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin secretly negotiated—the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, as the reconciliation bill was wisely renamed—will be the biggest positive step the US government has ever taken on climate change. When our sweltering planet is literally on fire—a new Guardian analysis estimates that excessive heat has killed millions of people over the last 30 years—strong action from the world’s leading climate superpower is indeed a big deal.

If passed by the House of Representatives later this week, the Inflation Reduction Act will invest $369 billion to hasten the US economy’s transition to carbon-free energy. That’s almost three times larger (adjusted for inflation) than the $90 billion for clean energy included in the 2009 federal stimulus bill. That $90 billion helped dramatically drop the price of solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources over the past decade. The vastly larger spending in this bill should accelerate and spread that progress to more parts of the economy.

“It makes clean energy cheap, that’s the bottom line,” said Jesse Jenkins, an engineering professor at Princeton who conducted independent modeling of the spending. New federal money, often in the form of tax credits, will subsidize consumers who switch to electric vehicles or install heat pumps and other energy efficient household technologies. It will incentivize electric utility companies to shift from gas to renewables and oil and gas companies to minimize leaks of methane, an exceptionally potent greenhouse gas. It will pay to clean up America’s ports, a concentrated source of emissions that not only overheats the planet but poisons nearby communities, which tend to be disproportionately poor and people of color. By doing all this and more, the Inflation Reduction Act will create 9 million jobs over the next decade in clean energy, clean manufacturing, and natural infrastructure (e.g., forests and parks), according to the Blue Green Alliance.

The bill’s backers further assert that it will reduce annual US emissions by 40 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, a claim supported by three independent analyses that is further examined below. If achieved, that reduction would approach the 50 to 52 percent reduction that scientists say is needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

That’s another reason this bill is a big deal: It gives the United States much-needed credibility to urge other countries to slash their own emissions. The US has taken many big steps on climate over the years, just mostly in the wrong direction. Instead of cutting emissions, it boosted them through subsidies and lax regulations. It has repeatedly cast doubt on whether there is even a problem, with the last president calling climate change “a hoax” to applause from fellow Republicans. At international conferences dating back to the Earth Summit in 1992, the same script has played out again and again: Other big emitters that don’t want to cut back hide behind the US refusal to do so. If the Inflation Reduction Act becomes law, that dodge will no longer be credible.

On to question 2: Is this bill enough to save us?

Not at all. Even the bill’s backers say that at best it will cut emissions by 40 percent. That would be a major step toward the 1.5º C target, but much more is needed.

Some self-styled realists suggest accepting that 1.5º C is unreachable and focusing on keeping the overshoot as small as possible. But look around. Record heat, drought, fire, and flooding are killing people and devastating communities all over the world, especially among the poor who did nothing to cause this crisis. “I can’t even express how frustrating and terrifying it is to be a young activist witnessing this!” wrote Jordan Mulinzi, a 15-year-old in Uganda tweeting that half a million people across his homeland are starving because of extreme drought.

These horrors are unfolding after a temperature rise of “only” 1.2º C. To give up on 1.5º C would be shameful, a betrayal of the tens of millions of people who live in highly vulnerable locations worldwide. It would also be a gamble for the economically comfortable global minority., for the further temperatures rise above 1.5º C, the more likely that tipping points such as “dieback” of the Amazon rainforest will trigger larger, irreversible effects.

All of which helps explain why scientists, activists, and newspaper editorials have urged President Joe Biden to declare a national climate emergency, no matter what Congress does. Citing a report by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Los Angeles Times editorial board said that such a declaration would enable Biden to take additional steps, including a ban on crude oil exports and directing “the Federal Emergency Management Agency to build climate-ready infrastructure in low-income communities of color that are hit hardest by disasters.”

Meanwhile, big chunks of the new bill’s spending go to technologies that are far from proven and may actually make the crisis worse. An estimated 23 percent of the money targeting the electricity sector is earmarked for “carbon capture and storage,” a process intended to capture carbon dioxide after fossil fuel is burned and store it away from where it can heat the atmosphere.

In theory, CCS enables power plants to keep burning fossil fuel without worsening global warming. But years of research and demonstration projects have not brought CCS close to economic competitiveness. Nevertheless, both the IRA bill and the three independent analyses assume that CCS will soon capture upward of 90 percent of the CO2 generated by a given facility.

But the possibility that this bill will not achieve all it promises does not invalidate point one above. A law can be a historic achievement and scientifically insufficient at the same time, especially when veto power resides with a politician like Manchin, who has made millions of dollars from coal investments and since 2020 has received more than $331,000 in campaign contributions from pipeline companies, three times more than any other member of Congress. In a petro-state like the US, phasing out oil, gas, and coal was never going to be easy.

Which brings us to question 3: Does this bill throw environmental justice under the bus?

Certainly, many advocates see it that way. Some go so far as to say the bill should be defeated. They assume that the bill will increase oil drilling, pipeline construction, and other fossil fuel projects that will burden surrounding communities, where residents often are poor or people of color. Manchin likewise assumes that he is spurring fossil fuel production; he demanded that the bill open 60,000 acres in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska to development, and further that it stipulate that wind projects cannot advance on federal land unless auctions are held for fossil fuel projects on those 60,000 acres.

But this core assumption, shared by both Manchin and the advocates, is open to question, as the senator may be disappointed to discover. Independent experts point out that the auctions and permits Manchin inserted into the bill will not necessarily translate into actual fossil fuel production. Companies first would have to invest in such projects, which is far from a sure thing.

Robert Bullard, a professor at South Texas University regarded as the grandfather of environmental justice in the US, said that the Inflation Reduction Act “has some good things in it that are greatly needed by low-income, people of color and environmental justice communities—such as incentives for clean energy technologies, electric vehicles, school buses and transit; helping families who are energy insecure with their electric bills; retrofits and tax credits to assist with making homes more energy efficient; and targeted investments to address legacy pollution and environmental ‘hot-spots’ created by racial redlining.” Bullard added, however, that the bill’s flaws mean that historically abused “communities once again appear to be placed in a precarious position of having to accept risky CCS technologies, more pollution, and unfair health ‘trade-offs’ in order to get environmental and climate benefits.”

“People who look like me have been on Congress’s expendables list for long enough,” said Ebony Martin, an African American woman who is a co–executive director of Greenpeace USA. Martin called the bill “a much-needed investment in renewable energy, and a down payment on the union jobs we need to propel a green economy. But it is a slap in the face to the frontline communities, grassroots groups, and activists that made this legislation possible.”

For instance, the Climate Justice Alliance, a network of urban and rural community organizations, is opposing the bill, saying, “The Inflation Reduction Act is not a climate justice bill.”

Schumer and most progressive Democrats argue that including the auction and permit provisions was the only way to secure Manchin’s approval—essential, given the opposition of all 50 Republican senators. A side bill, also demanded by Manchin, would streamline the permitting process by weakening core environmental laws. The trade-offs, Schumer and many progressives believe, are worth it. After all, Democrats are not obliged to support the side bill, just to put it to a vote. Above all, they cite Energy Innovation, one of the three independent analysts of the bill, which estimates that the main bill’s clean energy measures will yield 24 times more emissions reductions than its fossil fuel provisions will increase emissions.

That 24-to-1 ratio hints at why the bill’s environmental justice impacts might be less destructive than predicted. The fundamental strategy behind this bill is to make clean energy dramatically cheaper—so much cheaper that fossil fuels are squeezed out of existence, not by government fiat but by the workings of the marketplace.

The federal government can run as many auctions and offer as many permits as Manchin’s heart desires, but that won’t stop renewable energy from getting dramatically cheaper. And it bears repeating: More auctions and permits do not necessarily translate into more drilling and pipelines. It depends on whether investors think those projects are likely to yield an attractive profit.

In recent years, that hasn’t been the case, because oil prices until 2022 were relatively low and the legal, political, and reputational risks were high (in no small part because of grassroots resistance to such projects). What’s more, the most profitable fossil fuel sites went into production long ago, industry observers note, and long-term oil prices are projected to remain sluggish as the global transition to clean energy advances. (This piece is a good explainer.)

This is where the Inflation Reduction Act’s massive clean energy subsidies could deliver a fossil fuel kill shot. If electric vehicles push their gasoline counterparts aside—as auto manufacturers worldwide are already working toward and this bill will accelerate—then demand for oil should fall substantially, further depressing oil prices. In that case, investors will likely shun the new auctions and permits, sparing frontline communities from further exploitation.

Of course, there’s no guarantee the future will turn out that way. “Only time will tell if the huge bet we just put on renewable energy pays off,” said Erich Pica, the executive director of Friends of the Earth. “In the meantime, this wager is being backed at the cost of Black, brown, and Indigenous folks that…have endured the ravages of a fossil fuel economy so ‘the rest of the world’ can live our lives.”

For all the game-changing potential of the Inflation Reduction Act to transform the American and therefore the global effort to defuse the climate emergency, the bill has also laid bare a long-simmering rift within the US climate movement between its environmental justice wing, where race, class, and gender solidarity is demanded, and its more mainstream wing, where those values are embraced, often sincerely, but are clustered with competing objectives, such as making whatever progress is achievable within the system as it currently exists.

“It would be a gift to the fossil fuel industry if we came out of this process with a fractured climate movement,” said one veteran activist who asked not to be identified for fear of further stoking divisions. Whether such a fracturing occurs will depend partly on what happens going forward. Will both wings of the climate movement unite to oppose Manchin’s permitting bill? And if investors do try to realize Manchin’s goal of expanding fossil fuel production, will the vastly better funded mainstream groups live up to the stated commitment of Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of the League of Conservation Voters, to “keep fighting against more drilling, leasing, pipelines and other dangerous measures that perpetuate environmental racism and the climate crisis”?

And this raises a final question: How much longer will the Republican Party be given a pass on its climate wrecking?

Until Manchin’s surprise announcement that he was ready to support a climate bill after all, both wings of the movement, along with 99 percent of press coverage, was giving him all the blame for blocking climate progress on Capitol Hill. This was understandable, but bizarre given that his vote only mattered because Republican senators have been in lockstep opposition to climate action since, well, forever.

Republicans in Washington have opposed real climate action for more than 30 years, dating back to the first President Bush. Yet they never pay a political price for it. News coverage and political adversaries treat the GOP’s opposition as unchangeable as gravity. Thus Republicans get away with scorning Democrats’ ideas for combating the climate crisis, even as they offer no credible plans of their own. Our planetary house is on fire, and the GOP position is, “Do nothing.”

Perhaps it’s time to dub Republicans the Do Nothing Party. Just as the Know Nothing Party that arose prior to the Civil War was anti-immigrant, so today’s GOP is anti–climate survival. Meanwhile, the fast-approaching midterm elections could test how long Republicans can sustain this stance. During the 90-odd days between now and Election Day, GOP candidates should be asked over and over—by reporters covering their campaigns, by Democrats running against them, by activists turning out the vote, by constituents deciding whether to vote for them—why anyone who wants to preserve a livable climate (which happens to be the majority of Americans) would want a Republican Congress in charge when the planet is on fire.

The GOP position is that we can’t afford to put out the fire; we have to let it burn. It’s past time for Republicans to own that position. They can persist with it—although it’d be immeasurably better for humanity, not to mention their own children, if they didn’t—or they can change it. But no more hiding behind a free pass. Make it clear one way or the other, and let voters decide accordingly.