The Breadcrumbing Blunders of US Climate Policy: From Build Back Better to the Inflation Reduction Act

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The year 2020 was dubbed the year of the first climate election. Even though climate change has been an increasingly urgent problem for decades, 2020 was the first time that it was an actual topic of discussion during the presidential debates, and many candidates had substantial climate investment plans— thanks in large part to the efforts of youth climate activists like the Sunrise Movement. Throughout the 2020 campaign season, the anxious expectation was that climate action would either be significantly bolstered or hindered depending on the outcome of the election.  

A centerpiece of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign was his ambitious “Build Back Better” plan, which promised, among other things, “the largest effort to combat climate change in American history”. One of the measures in Build Back Better was to establish a Civilian Climate Corps, to give millions of Americans good-paying jobs in clean energy infrastructure, ecosystem restoration projects, and more. Now, almost two years after the so-called climate election, we’re seeing a gutted version of Build Back Better in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, which Biden signed into law on August 16, 2022.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D, West Virginia) effectively killed the Build Back Better bill in December 2021, even after his fellow Democrats had compromised significantly— eliminating several bold initiatives initially part of the plan, and ultimately slashing the amount of proposed investment in half. They even removed key pieces that would have incentivized moving energy production away from coal. Despite this bid to appease Manchin, whose coal companies have made him millions and whose constituents rely on a coal-based economy, he would not budge.

The Inflation Reduction Act involves even further compromise on climate action. In order to get Manchin’s support, the Act gives several concessions to the fossil fuel industry, allowing them to continue polluting and even expand drilling on federal lands and waters. Even more strikingly, the IRA’s funding for climate action is probably just a mere fraction of what it should be. Scientists and experts have said that the US needs to invest $10 trillion over ten years if we intend to meet our Paris Agreement goals. Biden originally proposed $2 trillion. We got $369 billion— with a “B”.

Granted, $369 billion is still a lot of money, and it’s certainly better than nothing. It’ll help energy providers generate more low-cost electricity from clean sources, like solar, wind, and nuclear; incentivize regenerative practices in agriculture that help store (rather than emit) carbon; give tax credits that make electric cars more affordable for people who are low to middle-income; and offer rebates & other incentives for households to install energy-efficient appliances, heat pumps, and rooftop solar panels. The list goes on.

What’s potentially concerning here is that the IRA seems to be putting the onus of climate action more onto individuals, and less onto the corporations responsible for the vast majority of emissions. And, speaking of emissions, how much will the IRA actually lower them? Multiple different nonpartisan think tanks have analyzed this, and they estimate that the US will be able to decrease greenhouse gas emissions about 40 percent below 2005 levels by the end of this decade. But that would only get us about two-thirds of the way towards Biden’s goal to cut emissions in half by 2030.

It’s also important to look more closely at the goals themselves, and whether they’re even sufficient. What kind of world do we want to live in? We’re already at 1 degree Celsius of warming, and we have extreme drought, flooding, wildfires, hurricanes, et cetera. If we want a livable future, shouldn’t we restore the climate, to what we know is safe? The Inflation Reduction Act does not really address that.

Ultimately, the IRA represents the US government’s inability to respond to our climate emergency at the scale, scope, and speed required. We can, and should, demand better. The IRA gets the ball rolling, but the work is far from done, and climate action will face an even tougher road if Democrats lose any seats during the upcoming midterms.

Before the passage of the IRA, the major successes of Biden’s progressive agenda had come in the form of executive actions, but those are still under threat by a largely Trump-appointed, conservative Supreme Court. This June, SCOTUS overruled Biden’s Executive Order that allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate emissions from power plants. In a 6-3 ruling, the court stated that only Congress has the power to grant such authority to a government agency.

Thankfully, the Inflation Reduction Act does include a measure that specifically addresses this ruling. In fact, the IRA marks the first time that greenhouse gases have been legally defined as pollution. They did this by amending the Clean Air Act to classify the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels as an air pollutant. This means that the Environmental Protection Agency can use its authority to regulate emissions— likely more effectively than before— while continuing to advance clean power generation.

Still, the SCOTUS ruling in itself may have far-reaching consequences. The idea that only Congress can authorize actions to tackle major issues stems from a legal discussion known as the “Major Questions” doctrine, which is becoming more popular. US courts used it last year to overrule Biden’s mask mandate, which was to be carried out by the CDC. Executive agencies like the CDC now face more of a roadblock to taking action independently to address major concerns that impact the entire country. The implications of this trend are vast, but at the very least, it could mean that further climate legislation will be limited.

Biden and other Democrats must not surrender easily to what has essentially become a conservative revolution in government. While Republicans get away with planning and attempting a coup after losing an election, Democrats continue to play nice. But Republicans are playing a completely different game. In back-to-back rulings, the conservative-majority Supreme Court has gone against the wishes of the majority of the country. And they’ve agreed to hear a case this October that could be even worse news for our democracy. The outcome of the Moore v. Harper case will determine how much power state legislatures have over federal elections, without oversight from state courts.

In the 1930s, President Roosevelt (FDR) attempted to expand the Supreme Court and place a retirement age of 70 on the Justices, so that he could pass his New Deal and lift America out of the Great Depression. Here we see a Democrat President, unreserved about applying all the powers granted to them by law. The country’s current situation is dire enough to warrant similarly unapologetic action, even if it’s viewed as extremist by the other party. Republicans have embraced the voices making their boldest of beliefs mainstream, and Democrats must do the same in order to stand a chance. 

Today, progressives are calling for SCOTUS expansion and retirement age, as well as ending the filibuster in Congress to unblock progress on key issues like climate change. Fortunately, the Inflation Reduction Act was not subject to the filibuster since it was passed through budget reconciliation, a special legislative process that allows a bill to pass with a simple majority. But that won’t necessarily be the case for other forms of climate legislation, which we desperately need.

Aggressive steps will show the willingness to fight back, and likely bring some conservative leaders and justices to the overdue realization that we all need to be open to compromise in order to move forward. This is the kind of response FDR got when he tried to pack up to six additional justices on the bench, after the New Deal kept getting struck down. Two Supreme Court justices switched to pro-New Deal stances, in a move that was famously called the “switch in time that saved nine”.

Was a climate election won in 2020? It remains to be seen; it depends on what constitutes a win for the climate. If a win is a step in the right direction, no matter how small or incremental, then maybe a climate election was won. If winning means truly getting on track to reverse global warming, by slashing emissions and removing atmospheric carbon more and more every year, then maybe there was no climate election at all.

Despite Biden’s emphasis on climate action winning him the youth vote in 2020, he vowed to keep business as usual in an attempt to restore equilibrium after Trump. The recent SCOTUS rulings, whether on environmental health or reproductive health, are an unfortunate though unsurprising consequence of Biden’s middle-ground stance. The problem with being coy on the progressive agenda is that the country does not, in fact, remain as usual; it moves in the direction of political actors who actually use their positions of power to advance their agendas.

There is still hope, even in the midst of opposition. We can still work to elect progressive candidates with track records of bold action, on climate as well as other priorities, like healthcare and housing. And crucially, we must remember that electoral politics is not the end-all, be-all. Voting is just one strategy of many, and, in fact, plenty of climate action is happening outside the halls of Congress. Many nonprofit and for-profit organizations, especially at the local level, are making a difference every day. It’s important to highlight these efforts, so that we can participate in them, be inspired by them, and play our part in preserving our one and only spaceship home, Earth.

Stay tuned for our next blog post (and mini-podcast) on NGO climate action!