A People's History of the Inflation Reduction Act

It was grassroots movements that created the political space for the historic climate legislation

A People's History of the Inflation Reduction Act

In 2006, at the end of an unusually hot summer, activist and author Bill McKibben organized a five-day march in his home state of Vermont to demand congressional action on climate change. The march began at Robert Frost's summer writing cabin near Ripton, Vermont, and from there traced a path up the western edge of the state. In the evenings, the marchers took part in village green-style rallies hosted by communities along the route. By the time McKibben reached Burlington, 1,000 people had joined him. One Vermont newspaper proclaimed it the largest march ever for climate change action.'When I read that I thought, no wonder we're losing,' McKibben recently told Sierra. 'We've got the superstructure of a movement—the scientists and policy people and Al Gore. The only part we've left out is the movement itself.' What a difference a decade-and-a-half makes. Today, there is unmistakably a vibrant, vigorous, and diverse American climate movement—a people's movement strong enough to influence US politics and to shape US policy at the highest levels. The best evidence of that is this year's Inflation Reduction Act. One can trace a direct line from those village green rallies in 2006 to the passage, last August, of the landmark legislation. Recognized as the biggest investment the federal government has ever made to combat climate change, the IRA directs $369 billion to climate change solutions and clean energy incentives.After the Inflation Reduction Act squeaked through the Senate, lawmakers were quick to celebrate sausage well made, especially at a time when the political atmosphere in DC is dangerously unhealthy and compromise is a dirty word. In truth, the IRA wouldn't have happened without the climate movement. That we finally have meaningful climate policy is a testament to the persistence, smart strategizing, and rowdiness of millions of activists. It's also a sign that the fossil fuel industry's stranglehold on Congress is not as total as it once was. As Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California and a longtime leader on climate issues, recently told The New York Times, 'I don't think we would have had that achievement [IRA passage] but for the climate movement.''Each of these fights has been important in its own right, but also has had the effect of shifting the zeitgeist, bit by bit,' McKibben said.  So, how did that achievement happen? It has taken countless small battles to help erode the strength of the fossil fuel industry. Fights over this pipeline or that fracking well; fossil fuel divestment from this college or that pension fund; and a thousand cuts against the fossil fuel industry eventually shifted the balance of power in Washington and made a political moment possible. 'Each of these fights has been important in its own right, but also has had the effect of shifting the zeitgeist, bit by bit,' McKibben said.

Photo by Evan Vucci/APEarly daysIn June 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress that the greenhouse effect was happening: human activities were spewing carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere and contributing to global temperature rise. The very next year, McKibben published the first popular book about climate change, The End of Nature, which warned readers that we need to overhaul our relationship with the natural world (and fossil fuels) to avoid catastrophic global warming. Then, in 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its first report, calling for the nations of the world to come together to address climate change.'I was naïve enough to think if we kept writing books and articles and the IPCC did its thing, that, having settled the argument, our leaders would then get to work,' McKibben told Sierra. 'It took me too long and too many books to realize that we'd won the argument conclusively, but we were still losing the fight because the fight wasn't about data and evidence. It was about money and power.'In the 1990s, environmental groups slowly began making climate change one of their issues, though it wasn't yet the issue. Meanwhile, fossil fuel industry–funded front groups rushed to fill the vacuum and began organizing an effective disinformation effort to sow skepticism about the threat of global warming. In 1998, the United States signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the Senate never ratified the treaty; just three years after the protocol was conceived, President George W. Bush pulled the United States out of the agreement. By the early 2000s, the warning signs were flashing more brightly. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina (and the bungled federal response) shocked the country and gave us a taste of the extreme weather events to come. That same year, the Sierra Club membership voted to make climate change a top priority for the organization. An Inconvenient Truth, released in 2006, documented Al Gore's efforts to wake the world up to the threat. The film won an Academy Award—and suddenly global warming was hot. Leonardo DiCaprio appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair with a sad-looking baby polar bear at his feet. After the Vermont march, McKibben started planning other events with the help of a handful of students and recent grads from Middlebury College, where he teaches. Jamie Henn, who became involved with carbon neutrality efforts on the Middlebury campus after seeing An Inconvenient Truth, was one of them. In those early days, Henn and other activists spent much of their time simply trying to wake people up to the issue.Social media was still new, so activists cold called environmental groups across the globe and invited them to participate in the global day of action'We literally had days of action where we just rang church bells,' Henn said. In 2007, the loose-knit group of climate campaigners organized a national day of action for 'global warming legislation' called Step It Up. Soon after, Hansen published a paper warning that we needed to keep carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere below 350 parts per million to avoid catastrophic climate change. McKibben, Henn, and company formed a new entity called 350.org and began planning a global day of action for October 24, 2009, ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen that December.Social media was still new, so activists cold called environmental groups across the globe and invited them to participate. McKibben likened it to a potluck supper: they announced the date and theme, but groups and individuals decided what to bring to the moment. There were 5,200 events in 183 countries. 'It was this moment where everybody got to see themselves in this new climate movement that was young and diverse and global and creative,' Henn said.

Photo by Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/Sipa via AP ImagesThe failed attempt of Waxman-MarkeyTo fully appreciate the historic accomplishment that is the Inflation Reduction Act, it's useful to first understand what happened to the doomed Waxman-Markey bill. The first months of the Obama administration were a heady time for progressives. Buoyed by the landslide election of Barack Obama, who had campaigned on a promise to tackle climate change, environmentalists were optimistic about passing climate legislation. Democrats enjoyed large margins in both houses of Congress; a national law to ratchet down greenhouse gas pollution seemed within reach. In June 2009, the House narrowly passed (219 to 212) the American Clean Energy and Security Act. Sponsored by Representatives Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the legislation sought to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2030.The euphoria faded fast. The recession dominated Obama's first year in office, and he spent much of his political capital passing the Affordable Care Act. The White House seemed to have little appetite to push the climate legislation. After clearing the House, Waxman-Markey languished in the Senate. That left Obama with limited credibility on the climate issue when he arrived at the December 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen—talks that ended in a total failure.Waxman-Markey was, essentially, a cap-and-trade plan: It set limits on greenhouse gas emissions and then established a market so companies could buy and sell permits in order to meet those limits. While the proposed legislation may have had a certain technocratic elegance, it suffered from political weaknesses. For one thing, it splintered the environmental community.Waxman-Markey created a rift between centrist environmental groups that embraced the bill and environmental justice groups concerned that the bill did little to protect people in poor and minority communities living near big polluters—polluters that would be able to keep polluting, and simply buy their carbon credits from elsewhere. 'The idea that we can carbon trade away [our emissions] really generated a huge outcry, particularly for climate justice and grassroots groups,' said Jean Su, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. While many of the 'Big Green' groups—including Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, and League of Conservation Voters—lobbied Senators to pass the bill, they neglected to rally support at the grassroots. There were no major marches or demonstrations in support of the proposed law; there were scant efforts to generate calls to representatives on Capitol Hill, even as the BP oil spill unspooled an ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The Big Green groups trusted their inside game would be enough. In the wake of the defeat of Waxman-Markey, environmentalists engaged in plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking.The problem was that there were plenty of lobbyists on the other side too. Soon, Waxman-Markey was warped by what The New York Times termed a 'cornucopia of concessions and exemptions' to the fossil fuel industry and Big Ag. Senate Democrats eventually recognized they wouldn't have enough votes to overcome a 60-vote filibuster, and by the summer of 2010 it was declared dead. In the wake of the defeat, environmentalists engaged in plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking. The demise of Waxman-Markey was due to the recession, or the intransigence of Republicans, or the corporate lobbying, or the sclerotic Senate, or all of the above. Eventually, many in the environmental movement would come to see that the lack of a broad-based movement as a major factor in the defeat. Writing about the collapse of the cap-and-trade bill, the League of Conservation Voters would eventually admit, 'We learn[ed] an important lesson: we must organize at the grassroots level and make climate action a priority issue for the public and elected leaders alike.'

Photo courtesy of the Sierra ClubKeystone XL and Keep It in the GroundIn some post-mortems of the Waxman-Markey debacle, none other than President Obama played a prominent role. The president never made climate a priority. And after the Democrats got hammered in the 2010 mid-terms, the White House seemed to shrink further from climate change. Obama embraced an 'all-of-the-above' energy strategy that promoted offshore drilling and methane gas extraction alongside nuclear and renewables.Aware that legislation was off the table in a GOP-controlled Congress and increasingly perturbed by Obama's pivot to 'all of the above,' environmental organizations big and small turned their focus to 'supply-side' battles. The basic strategic idea was to tackle the climate crisis by cutting off the flow of planet-warming coal, oil, and gas. Increasingly, the cutting edge of the climate movement would be fights against pipelines, wellheads, and coal terminals.Target number one became the Keystone XL Pipeline: a proposed 1,400-mile-long pipeline that would have moved petroleum from the tar sands mines of Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. Environmentalists opposed the project for sound strategic and scientific reasons; tar sands oil is especially dirty and carbon-intensive, and opponents dubbed it a 'ticking time bomb' for the climate. The pipeline also had tactical value: It provided the climate movement with something to rally against. 'Movements require villains,' Henn said. 'The incredible local organizing, led by environmental justice and Indigenous communities, animated the movement in a way that a price on carbon or even clean energy targets could never do.'In August 2011, climate activists organized a two-week-long string of civil disobedience actions at the White House to call on Obama to deny a crucial cross-border permit needed for pipeline construction. McKibben and James Hansen were both arrested, as were celebrities like Darryl Hannah. Black leaders, including Ben Jealous of the NAACP and the Reverend Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, addressed the demonstrators. Then-Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune and Sierra Club president Allison Chin were arrested—marking the first time ever that the nation's oldest environmental organization had engaged in civil disobedience. By the end of the month, more than 1,200 people had been detained at the White House—marking the biggest show of environmentally focused civil disobediences since the height of the anti-nuclear movement 30 years before. The Obama White House was unmoved. But the campaign against Keystone XL had the intended effect of broadening and deepening the climate movement. In Nebraska, Jane Kleeb's Bold Nebraska succeeded in enl