The era of big government is back. At least, it’s making a comeback—thanks to the momentum generated by the movement ecosystem of Green New Deal advocates, organizers, and policy wonks.
Forty-five years after Exxon’s scientists sounded the alarm about climate change to the company’s leaders, 34 after NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress about the greenhouse effect, 14 after then–Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama declared that the ocean’s rise would begin to slow, seven after the adoption of the Paris climate accords, and nearly four after freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined young people sitting in at Nancy Pelosi’s office calling for Congress to act, the Democratic majority in Congress finally passed federal climate legislation.
On its face, the Inflation Reduction Act should be cause for jubilation. Each of those years without a coordinated plan from the federal government to tackle climate change was precious time spent dithering at the starting line of the world’s most dangerous race. But with climate action, there’s no such thing as too little, too late: Tens of thousands of lives are saved by every fraction of a degree of warming we avoid.
On closer inspection, however, the legislation reveals some ugly contradictions. Foremost among them is a provision that requires the federal government to auction public lands for fossil fuel extraction before leasing them for the development of renewables. Although one environmental research firm’s analysis projects that every ton of carbon emitted from the bill will be met with 24 tons saved from clean energy investments, that is small comfort to the Appalachians blockading the Mountain Valley Pipeline or to the disproportionately Black residents fighting cancer from petrochemical refining off the coast of Louisiana.
The IRA is thus the rare bill that both oil CEOs and climate policy analysts could cheer. If you called the act “massive,” “a mixed bag,” “historic,” “woefully inadequate,” and a betrayal of the environmental justice communities fighting fossil fuel pollution, you’d be right on all counts.
You would be wrong, however, if you dismissed the role of the Green New Deal in directing the policy conversation in D.C. Matt Yglesias, writing for his newsletter, argues that the IRA “owes [the Green New Deal] relatively little.” His reasoning is straightforward. If the Green New Deal represents the holy trinity of climate action, what climate writer Dave Roberts describes as “investments, standards, and justice,” then the IRA fails on two of the three. No argument there: The Inflation Reduction Act is not the Green New Deal.
What Yglesias undersells is the movement strategy that made massive federal investment in clean energy a must-pass priority of the Democratic Party. That the bill emerged from the Senate without a single vote to spare, uniting a fossil fuel millionaire from West Virginia with a socialist from Vermont, is nothing short of miraculous. It also reveals how the climate movement, by making the case for the state to lead decarbonization, shifted lawmakers away from the laissez-faire neoliberalism popular since the Reagan era.
Consider the death of the Senate’s last attempt to pass federal climate legislation. The Waxman-Markey Bill of 2009 was a technocratic cap-and-trade program that would have created a market of pollution credits for corporations to barter over in order to emit greenhouse gasses. Designed by neoliberal economists and handpicked by fossil fuel companies as their preferred climate solution, cap-and-trade was nevertheless pilloried by Republicans as government overreach. It never reached a vote in the Senate.
Why could Democrats in the Senate pass a massive clean energy investment bill with a margin of nil in 2022, but couldn’t even put a Republican economist–approved market tweak to a vote in 2009?
You could argue, as Yglesias seems to, that the specific circumstances called for specific approaches. Perhaps the climate crisis has become so obviously dire today that it demands a more interventionist federal government, or the pandemic has made Americans more accepting of robust federal action.
This is, at best, only a partial response. After all, the early Obama years featured a generational crisis of its own. Even as Americans faced the worst depression since the great one, the White House was still hemmed in by the ideological constraints of neoliberalism—refusing to consider, for example, more than a trillion dollars in a federal stimulus.
The tools a party has at its disposal are limited, then, not only by the numbers of its majorities but also by the instincts of its members. These instincts are shaped by what seems politically viable. In 2009, although Democrats controlled Washington with bigger majorities than they do today, neoliberalism was the only party in town.
“There is enormous inertia—a tyranny of the status quo—in private and especially governmental arrangements,” wrote the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman in 1982. Actions that these institutions take “depend on the ideas that are lying around.” These ideas define what’s politically possible at any moment in time, setting the terms of debate in D.C. The terms of this debate go by a few different names. Marxists call it “ideology”; political scientists call it a “policy regime”; movement strategists call it a “political alignment”—but you and I can simply call it common sense.
Friedman saw it as the duty of conservatives to “develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.” As Naomi Klein has expertly documented, exploiting crises to advance a pro-capital agenda was a hallmark of conservatives when neoliberalism was ascendant. Now, the climate left has adopted this strategy, using ruptures in society—both the coronavirus pandemic and the extreme weather of a warming planet—to shift the terrain on which politicos operate.
If we examine the Inflation Reduction Act in this context, together with the CHIPS and Science Act, last year’s infrastructure bill, and the American Rescue Plan, a pattern emerges that vindicates the underlying framework of the Green New Deal. By claiming the role of a more muscular federal government, these bills represent a ragged break from the neoliberal dogma that undermined climate legislation for decades.
My emphasis is on “ragged” here as much as it is on “break.” The Inflation Reduction Act is a compromise with reality. Not scientific reality, mind you, which demands a much more dramatic drop in carbon emissions than what the bill alone would yield. No, it’s a compromise with political reality: the persistence of inflation fueled by war with an imperial petro-state, the near iron grip that the party of denial and delay holds over our democracy, the sclerotic dysfunction of Congress’s upper chamber, and the unbroken power of the fossil fuel lobby.
Most of all, the bill is a compromise with a coal baron. For more than a year, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin held federal climate action hostage, whittling away the welfare provisions from President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda and demanding the approval of pet fossil fuel projects, all while personally enriching himself.
I don’t want to overstate my case. We have not broken the back of neoliberalism. The spate of bills directing the US government to invest half a trillion dollars in the green economy over the next 10 years still pales in comparison to, say, the Pentagon’s budget, which is set to exceed $800 billion in just a single year.
But now that Biden has signed the Inflation Reduction Act, Green New Dealers would do well to recognize that while we’re beginning to win the argument, we still need to win the war. Let’s redouble our efforts to stymie the fossil fuel industry, both by kicking out corrupt politicians doing the bidding of lobbyists, and by blocking the buildout of disastrous infrastructure projects.
Just as this summer may very well be the coolest for the rest of our lives, we need to make the hundreds of billions of dollars for clean energy in the IRA the smallest investment the federal government makes in the climate fight this decade.