Opinion: The Moment We Are In

Gulf of Nicoya, Costa Rica. Photo: Russ Vernon-Jones.

Love, Justice and Climate Change

Russ Vernon-Jones

At the moment the Democrats in the U.S. Senate have a new proposal — a bill to curb inflation and address climate change. It’s not yet clear whether they have the votes to pass it, but Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Senator who has scuttled previous Democratic climate bills, helped to craft this one and is making the rounds of the TV talk shows advocating for it.

Climate activists don’t agree about this bill. At least one organization has forcefully rejected it as “a gift to the fossil fuel industry” (XR NYC in an email to supporters on July 31). It does have some horrible provisions. It requires that the federal government offer new fossil fuel drilling leases on public lands and waters as a prerequisite to putting any solar or wind energy projects on public lands, and is part of a deal to speed up some pipeline permitting. On the other hand, the widely respected Sunrise Movement said “the strongest version possible of this bill must pass immediately,” noting that it puts $369 billion of climate spending in play (in an email to supporters on July 28).

Cuts To Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Analysts estimate that that the combined provisions of the bill will cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030! That’s huge. That’s enough to have me, and many other climate activists, cheering despite the concessions that were required to get it. There is nothing more important in solving the climate crisis right now than reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The bill does this by including funding for clean energy and electric vehicle tax breaks, domestic manufacturing of batteries and solar panels, and pollution reduction. It incentivizes consumers to purchase electric vehicles and electric home heating and cooling systems, and to install solar panels, reducing major sources of CO2 emissions. It provides a host of other measures–reducing methane emissions, environmental justice block grants, investments in tribal communities, and promoting reforestation and regenerative agriculture.

Investing $369 billion in fighting climate change, this bill, if approved, will be the biggest climate bill ever passed in the U.S. It has been called a “total game changer” for the climate!

Leah Stokes, Political Scientist, UC Santa Barbara

Inflation Reduction And How Its Paid For
It’s titled the “Inflation Reduction Act”, and includes some important non-climate items as well. It enables Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies and caps the total that a Medicare recipient will need to pay out-of-pocket for medications. There’s additional funding to reduce premiums under the Affordable Care Act. It’s all paid for by establishing a 15% minimum tax on businesses with over a billion dollars of income, closing some tax loopholes, and enhancing IRS tax enforcement. By lowering consumers costs for transportation and home heating and cooling and medical costs, it should help lower inflation.

How did this moment come about when only days ago it seemed that any hope of meaningful climate legislation was dead in the water? There are many answers to this question, but a key factor is the way the climate movement has shifted public opinion in recent years. Longtime climate activist leader Bill McKibben writes that Senator Manchin was unprepared for the public scorn he experienced after torpedoing the most recent previous climate legislative effort. It appears that Manchin started to realize that the only thing he would be remembered for would be having blocked action on the worst crisis ever to confront humanity.

So Many Contributed To This
McKibben explains that each individual climate action over the last many years helped to collectively shift the social and political landscape of the nation. He gives the Sunrise Movement lots of credit for building and guiding the political force behind this moment. Then he writes, “this is a win engineered by everyone who ever wrote a letter to the editor, carried a sign at a march, went to jail blocking a pipeline, voted to divest a university endowment, sent ten dollars to a climate group, made their book club read a climate book.”

An “Historic Achievement”
David Wallace-Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth (2019), wrote last week that this bill is a compromise, but “it is also a historic achievement for the climate left and a tribute to both its moral fervor and its political realism.” He notes that less than four years ago virtually no one had heard of Greta Thunberg or the Sunrise Movement. Now they, and others, have made climate a priority front-burner issue. Even if this bill fails to pass, in his view, the success of what he calls the “climate left” has been remarkably rapid and transformative.

Other Features Of This Moment
This moment also includes the terrible heat waves in both Western Europe and the U.S, and news about oil company profits. This week the two largest oil companies in the U.S. announced that they have made record profits in the last three months. While consumers have been reeling from high prices at the pump, ExxonMobil made $17.9 billion, up 273% from the same time last year. Chevron made $11.6 billion. Apparently, they do not intend to use this money to bring down prices, invest in green energy, or even create jobs in their industry. They plan to use it to buy back stock, driving up the price of their stock.

How Can We Deal With All This?
How can we best deal with the cross-currents of hope, outrage, and despair that so many of us experience as we read the news and try to make sense of the moments we are in? My best answer this week is that we can choose persistence. Regardless of the ups and downs of our feelings, we can persist — persist in caring, persist in advocating for bold climate action, and persist in communicating to our friends and neighbors how much we care about our precious Earth and all the humans and other species that share it with us.

Russ Vernon-Jones was principal of Fort River School 1990-2008 and is currently a member of the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now-Western Massachusetts. He blogs regularly on climate justice at www.russvernonjones.org.

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Photo above was taken in the Gulf of Nicoya, in Costa Rica by Russ Vernon-Jones.

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