In Compromise, the Climate Left May Be Vindicated

David Wallace-Wells
Kena Betancur/VIEWpress, via Getty Images

Editor: "a historic achievement for the climate left and a tribute to both its moral fervor and its political realism" maybe, but not for climate emergency realism!

July 29, 2022

The deal, if it holds, is very big, several times as large as anything on climate the United States passed into law before. The architects and supporters of the $369 billion in climate and clean-energy provisions in Joe Manchin’s Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, announced Wednesday, are already calculating that it could reduce American carbon emissions by 40 percent, compared with 2005 levels, by 2030. That’s close enough to President Biden’s pledge of 50 percent that exhausted advocates seem prepared to count it as a victory, if a somewhat mixed one that still falls short of the demands of scientists and the Paris Agreement. But hundreds of billions in spending and hundreds of billions more in loans do add up.

This is quite a reversal. As recently as a week ago, post-mortems were being written about not just the failure of climate legislation under Biden but also the failure of the president’s entire once-ambitious domestic-policy agenda.

The finger-pointing autopsies fell into two predictably defined groups. One, from the climate left, faulted Manchin and the influence of the fossil-fuel business. The other, from the liberal establishment, faulted the climate left for its hard-line rhetoric and political naïveté.

This bill is a compromise, obviously and outwardly. It is also a historic achievement for the climate left and a tribute to both its moral fervor and its political realism. Climate is a top-shelf political concern because it has been pushed there by those who care most; it is now on the verge of being addressed, at scale, because that push appears to have worked.
This compliment is not contingent: Although the story will be much more heroic if this bill or something like it passes into law, the achievement is already heroic, by bringing such legislation, in this country, even this close.
In less than five years, a new generation of activists and aligned technocrats has taken climate action from the don’t-go-there zone of American politics and helped place it at the very center of the Democratic agenda, persuading an old-guard centrist septuagenarian, Biden, to make a New Deal-scale green investment the focus of his presidential campaign platform and his top policy priority once in office. This, despite a generation of conventional wisdom that the issue was electorally fraught and legislatively doomed. Now they find themselves pushing a recognizable iteration of that agenda — retooled and whittled down, yes, but still unthinkably large by the standards of previous administrations — plausibly forward into law.
It has been less than four years since the most outspoken of the new activist groups, the Sunrise Movement, even announced itself, protesting with Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the office of Nancy Pelosi, who later seemed to diminish the protesters’ ambitions as “the Green Dream or whatever.”
If you believe that climate change is a boutique issue prioritized only by out-of-touch liberal elites, as one poll found, then this bill, should it pass, represents a political achievement of astonishing magnitude: the triumph of a moral crusade against long odds. If you don’t — if you believe there is quite a lot of public support for climate action, as other polls suggest — then this bill marks the success of outsider activists in holding establishment forces to account, both to their own rhetoric and to the demands of their voters.
The most focused of that criticism was published by Noah Smith, formerly of Bloomberg. “It is now abundantly clear that Americans are not going to support a big government push to rapidly decarbonize the U.S. economy,” he wrote on July 20, adding: “It is now time to conclude that the ‘scare people into making a big push’ strategy that climate activists and leftists have been using over the last few years has decisively, utterly failed.”
Smith wasn’t at all alone in faulting activists for pushing too hard. “Justice or Overreach?,” a report by Zack Colman in Politicodocumented fears that social-justice concerns among environmentalists may have doomed prospects for progress. In March in an essay, “Climate Politics for the Real World,” Matt Yglesias wrote about, as he put it, “what the Sunrise Movement and its boosters get wrong” — namely that major progress could be achieved through a grass-roots mobilization of the public rather than from-above, inside-baseball pressure on Democratic elites.
But as the political scientist Matto Mildenberger has pointed out, the legislation hadn’t failed at the ballot box; it had stalled on Manchin’s desk. He also pointed to research showing climate is driving the voting behavior of Democrats much more than it is driving Republicans into opposition and that most polling shows high levels of baseline concern about warming and climate policy all across the country. (It is perhaps notable that as the Democrats were hashing out a series of possible compromises, there wasn’t much noise about any of them from Republicans, who appeared to prefer to make hay about inflation, pandemic policy and critical race theory.)
The rhetorical criticism was strange as well, especially as an indictment of the seeming failure of Biden’s climate ambitions. It is hard not to talk about warming without evoking any fear, but the president was famous, on the campaign trail and in office, for saying, “When I think ‘climate change,’ I think ‘jobs.’” He did not say, “When I think ‘climate change,’ I think ‘wildfires and floods and droughts.’” He didn’t say he thought about food security or about those drowning in basement apartments in New York City during storms or about climate justice. He didn’t say he thought about the brutal impact of warming on the lives and livelihoods of those in the Global South or how much guilt the average American should feel for the effects of our lifestyles on the world’s poorest. He didn’t mention “degrowth.” He didn’t refer to the end of the world. He kept that kind of rhetoric about as far from his lips as anyone talking about climate possibly could have. He focused on green growth and the opportunities and benefits of a rapid transition.
And while that might not itself have been all that surprising, the climate left didn’t take it as a reason to put up a fight. In the primaries, Sunrise gave Biden an F for his climate plan, but after he sewed up the nomination, its co-founder Varshini Prakash joined his policy task force to help write his climate plan. As the plan evolved and shrank over time, there were squeaks and complaints here and there but nothing like a concerted, oppositional movement to punish the White House for its accommodating approach to political realities.
And even when activists did shout, the White House didn’t bend over backward to accommodate them. The administration got behind the 45Q tax credit for carbon sequestration. It pushed for nuclear funding. It considered allowing new pipelines in exchange for Manchin’s yes vote on the last bill — and seemed willing to include new oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico in exchange for his support on this one. In fact, its current 725-page text includes a rule that the government can auction new offshore wind leases only if, within the past year, it also auctioned new oil and gas permits, an all-of-the-above approach clearly out of line with the International Energy Agency’s recommendation that no new investments in fossil-fuel infrastructure can be made if the world is to hold to the possibility of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels.
From a hard-line climate perspective, many of these concessions are imperfect or even counterproductive. But over the past 18 months, since the inauguration, whenever activists chose to protest, they were almost always protesting not the inadequacy of proposed legislation but the worrying possibility of no legislation at all. When they showed up at Manchin’s yacht, they were there to tell him not that they didn’t want his support but that they needed him to act. They didn’t urge Biden to throw the baby out with the bathwater; they were urging him not to.
When, last week, they thought they’d lost, Democratic congressional staff members staged an unprecedented sit-in at Schumer’s office, hoping to pressure the Senate majority leader back into negotiations with Manchin. And what did they say? They didn’t say, “We have eight years to save the earth.” They didn’t say, “The blood of the future is on your hands.” What their protest sign said was “Keep negotiating, Chuck.” As far as I can tell, this was code for “Give Joe more.”
They got their wish. And as a result, we got a bill. That’s not naïveté but the opposite.
Correction: Wednesday’s edition of this newsletter mischaracterized the companies that funded America’s fracking boom. They were private-equity companies, not venture-capital companies.
David Wallace-Wells (born 1982)[1] is an American journalist known for his writings on climate change. He wrote the 2017 essay "The Uninhabitable Earth;" the essay was published in New York as a long-form article and was the most read article in the history of the magazine.[2][3] Wells later expanded the article into a 2019 book of the same title. He is currently an editor-at-large for New York and covers the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic extensively. He was hired in March 2022 by The New York Times to write a weekly newsletter and contribute to The New York Times
[Top photo: Kena Betancur/VIEWpress, via Getty Images]