When I first started writing about climate change more than 20 years ago, whether drawing attention to the health risks of higher temperatures or the Vermont maple sugar farms whose seasons were shrinking, it seemed that too few people cared. Too few in positions of power in government and industry and too few in the public, particularly in the United States, wanted to do anything about it. It was not just inertia, but a kind of counter-momentum, powered by fossil fuel industry propaganda and obfuscation, but also by the fact that the climate crisis did not seem like an imminent danger to most Americans. If only our past selves could have seen more clearly the view from the summer of 2022 with its debilitating heat waves, its deadly floods, and costly droughts.
The counter-momentum felt so great and frustrating to me that for a time I decamped from journalism, compelled by Barack Obama’s pledge to make climate policy a priority in his second term. I joined the formidable climate scientists and policy wonks who went to work in his administration. But there too, the obstacles were overwhelming: a hostile Congress and a complicated bureaucracy that had never been wrangled for something so complex and that implicated nearly every aspect of the economy and of governing, from national security to transportation, from running the power grid to weather forecasting. The first comprehensive climate action plan from an American president pulled the levers of government it could without Capitol Hill’s cooperation. It attempted to do via a seemingly endless spate of executive orders and presidential memoranda what the Senate and the White House had failed to do in the first term when they let a bold cap-and-trade bill, Waxman-Markey, languish in the face of industry opposition.
The counter-momentum never ceased. And it flexed its muscles after the 2016 presidential election, when a new administration set about eviscerating the Obama-era climate policies. Certain states and industry lobbyists aided the cause, opposing stricter fuel emission standards for vehicles and successfully suing the Environmental Protection Agency for using the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. In June, the Supreme Court made it official, stripping the EPA of that authority.
This week, I feel for the first time that something has changed. As Congress considers a new bill brokered by Senate majority leader Charles Schumer of New York and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, I wonder if the era of counter-momentum on climate action is ending — if we may even be entering an era of momentum. If Senate Democrats manage to pass the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 through the budget reconciliation process (and it gets through the House), it would be the most significant climate policy in American history.
It calls for more than $369 billion to slash greenhouse gas emissions and support clean energy technologies, dramatically boosting tax credits for low and zero carbon emission alternatives to fossil fuel energy, doling out grants to cut methane emissions, and helping Americans buy electric vehicles and retrofit their homes with heat pumps and solar panels. It could cut enough carbon emissions to put the United States within reach of its pledged target under the Paris Agreement, and give the country a prayer of leading on the global stage again. And instead of relying on fragile executive action, reversible by the next occupant of the White House, this climate policy would have the force and momentum that comes with congressional action.
It’s not a sure thing. But it’s worth noting that momentum outside government brought us to this moment. Young activists elevated climate change to the top of the Democratic presidential candidates’ platforms in 2020, and gave the Biden administration a mandate and a demand to make climate action a legislative priority right away — a stark contrast with 2008. Corporate and union leaders alike have leaned on Manchin in recent weeks to encourage him to agree to the significant climate spending in the bill. Such momentum simply did not exist for previous climate proposals.
Critics will point out that the bill promises new oil and gas leases in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, bones thrown to Manchin and other moderates, and the ways it falls short of the full ambitions of the Biden White House to cut emissions. Cynics will undoubtedly remark that the proposal is too little, too late — that we have already baked in planetary warming for the coming decades that we can’t undo. Neither camp is wrong about the need to temper enthusiasm with such reality checks.
Nor can we ignore that if Congress passes this bill, it will probably be without a single vote of support from a Republican senator; climate denial and fossil fuel funding still run deep in the GOP. The powerful interests that oppose climate action haven’t died out.
But the downsides and the decades of delay should not overshadow the real progress possible in this moment. The unprecedented level of investment in new technologies to cut emissions, and the unprecedented degree of US government response to the climate crisis is warranted and it’s overdue — because the crisis itself is picking up momentum. But let’s not miss that, for once, so is the response of our political leadership.
Bina Venkataraman is editor-at-large for the Globe and former senior adviser for climate change innovation in the Executive Office of the US President.