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This Week in Climate: Breaking down the U.S. climate bill

Today, in our climate news column, "This Week in Climate", we take a look at the breakthrough climate bill in the United States, the communications strategy that made it happen, and what stands in the way.
Julian Moore
Aug 3, 2022 10 min read
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After decades of inaction on climate change at the federal level, The United States finally has a (proposed) climate law.

West Virginia Senator and frequent climate policy antagonist Joe Manchin said he would support the Inflation Reduction Act, a successor to the defeated Build Back Better plan that includes $369 billion towards climate change initiatives. Some highlights include:

  • $7,500 in tax credits for American consumers to buy electric cars. Earlier this month, 5% of all new car purchases in the U.S. were EVs, marking a historical tipping point for mass adoption.

  • $30 billion in grants and loans to help states transition their power sectors to renewables and energy storage.

  • $27 billion “clean energy technology accelerator” to deploy emissions-reducing technologies at critical infrastructure points and disadvantaged communities.

  • $850 million for a Methane Emissions Reduction Program over the next six years to provide technical and financial assistance for monitoring, reporting and shutting natural gas wells. So-called “orphan” wells are an outsized source of emissions in the U.S. that leak methane from wells no longer producing gas.

The proposal also has its warts.

The Center for Biological Diversity pointed out that the Interior Department would be required to offer at least 2 million acres of federal land and 60 million acres of offshore areas for oil and gas leasing every year for the next decade.

Fossil fuel leases on public land and offshore waters have been a thorny issue for the Biden Administration, which has gone back and forth on promises to limit such permits. But there are a few things to keep in mind about federal oil and gas leases:

  • No matter what leases are ultimately mandated by the Inflation Reduction Act, they are guaranteed to be met with lawsuits by environmental groups. That strategy has had some success, like in January when a federal judge cancelled federal oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico, citing inadequate consideration to the projects’ impact on climate change.

  • That ruling factored into the Biden Administration’s subsequent decision to cancel several offshore oil leases in Alaska in May. The Administration said a “lack of industry interest” in the leases as the reason for the cancellation.

  • It often takes fossil fuel companies years to start drilling after winning a bid for drilling on federal land. Supply chain issues since the pandemic and rising investor concerns have also slowed down new oil projects, meaning companies are stockpiling federal permits they are likely never to follow through on.

Lessons for Climate Communication

Manchin’s change of heart seemed to hinge on simply re-branding the Build Back Better plan to something more media-friendly, a fact that drew some scornful headlines from journalists.

But Manchin might be onto something.

A poll released this month found the while Republican voters ranked climate change dead last among their election priorities, they overwhelmingly support government incentives to increase efficiency of homes and buildings.

Many of those projects will get a major cash influx if the proposed bill passes. When the benefits are obvious, up-front and not explicitly linked to climate change, Republican voters are in fact eager to adopt climate solutions.

This mirrors one of Washington’s dirty secrets: more Republicans are privately willing to act on climate change than sometimes meets the eye.

Republican Senators publicly voiced support for a carbon border adjustment tax earlier this year. Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy saw the border tax as a measure to hold China and India accountable for their emissions while keeping American products competitive during an energy transition.

Calling investments in climate solutions something else entirely just might do the trick to bring over a few votes from across the aisle and chip away at the deranged perception of climate change as a strictly partisan concern.

If Manchin and other skeptics are willing to support climate action by giving it another name, maybe climate hawks should be, too.

None of these messaging games should take away from the critical role climate activists played to get to this point. Even if Senator Machin isn’t listening to groups like the Sunrise Movement, his colleagues are, and it may have made all the difference.

The Home Stretch

Nevertheless, the ink on the proposal isn’t dry yet.

German philosopher Schopenhauer wrote that “A pessimist is an optimist in full possession of the facts,” and the fact is that even with Manchin’s approval, several obstacles remain before the proposal becomes law.

  • Kyrsten Sinema said she would not vote for Build Back Better bill earlier this year, and literally ran away from reporters asking her about her support for the Inflation Reduction Act. Her support is still up in the air.

  • The bill has to go to the House of Representatives, where a few moderate Democrats may have a bone to pick with tax rules in the bill. The SALT deduction seems to be the primary hang-up.

  • Covid infections among Democratic leaders are running up against the scheduled Congressional vacations. Leaders could shorten their vacation period to deal with a crisis threatening the future of a hospitable planet, but nobody has proposed it yet. If they don’t, a vote will have to wait until the fall, giving the fossil fuel lobby weeks to prepare a response.

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The Author

Julian Moore