Why climate activists need to celebrate — even if we’re not feeling like it

The Inflation Reduction Act is not the best we can do for the climate, but claiming its success builds a more powerful movement for future wins.

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

The Senate just passed a major $375 billion climate bill. It’s all but certain to move through the House and be signed by the president. Yet, when I texted long-standing colleagues in Sunrise Movement, climate justice groups, Sierra Club, local pipeline fights and elsewhere, I found the mood to be… ambivalent, cautious, and non-celebratory.

Like many, I am sorting my feelings about the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, or IRA. Even writing this last sentence, I’m angry that they’ve disguised the biggest climate legislation the U.S. has ever taken with a lame title.

Amidst a summer of record-breaking heatwaves, my patience is thin. In my city, we’re in another heat advisory and my yard flooded twice in the last year. A lifetime of activism has resulted in too much hand-wringing, broken promises and aspirational international agreements. I want change. I can’t celebrate if this is the best we can do. 

At the same time, I lose something if I can’t acknowledge and mark this achievement. I lose a piece of myself, a chance to heal that hyper-fueled cynic inside me, and I undermine the movement and our ability to take credit for our progress. So here’s me writing how I found some space to celebrate the movement’s impact.

The bad

It’s easy to see this is not a great piece of legislation. The last-minute twists made me ill — Sen. Kyrsten Sinema protecting rich hedge fund managers by keeping the carried interest loophole

But for the climate, there are poison pills, largely concessions made to Sen. Joe Manchin. There’s a “dirty-for-clean” deal, where any new wind or solar projects on federal public lands cannot be approved until a million acres of public land have been offered up to oil and gas leases. It’s like offering to save everyone in a school, but murdering a few children.

Getting locked into a commitment to doomism may allow us to emotionally self-congratulate ourselves about being right — but it will burn out movement energy.

I am in a cynical mood these days. It feels in keeping with my cynicism to see billions spent on boondoggles like earmarked funding for hydrogen gas development and carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. Both are preferred capitalist “climate solutions.” They offer no proven track record, but polluting industries can use them to continue their devastation by saying they’re “offsetting” their harm. 

After Manchin’s pet project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, was stopped by state courts, he apparently feels assured by a side deal that would “streamline” regulations on 25 projects (including his own) by giving them the designation of “strategic national importance.” His draft legislation requires five of these projects to be fossil fuel-related (or their ilk) and two for CCS.

These latest twists feel like the insider D.C. deal-making that disgusts everyone courageous enough to review details.

Never enough

One reason I rely so much on history is to help normalize what’s happening inside of me. 

Taylor Branch wrote a 2,800-page totem on the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. One of the most amazing things to me in that journey was I never saw King satisfied. That’s just not a characteristic of activists. He saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and he went back to work. He kept going.

Cheap history books and sappy national days make people feel like clean victories are achieved. But King was in the lineage of activists for whom political wins are never enough, because justice demands more.

Surely this is even more so in the face of climate despair and a litany of lies. Future promises are never enough. Only concrete change matters.

We will feel a modicum of success when the air is clearer. When our emissions levels plunge downwards. When my land isn’t threatened by floods. 

Actually, that’s not totally true either. 

When the air is clearer, I’ll look to the poisoned soil. When the water tides go down, I’ll rally on economic injustice. 

The activist community does not cultivate words like enough. We always want more. And that’s a positive value to be treasured. But not if we can’t also pause it long enough to note our hard-won achievements. Even if we’re deeply unhappy with the bill, there are major victories despite a phenomenally hostile political environment. These victories against odds help show people the wins that can be made possible and the work it takes.

You don’t get this bill without the losses of Build Back Better or the Green New Deal. And those don’t emerge without Sunrise, the Climate Justice Alliance, or the myriad communities and groups fighting for a better world.

Those of us who’ve been around for a while have experienced much loss. And those losses don’t go away. They creep into our souls and whisper doubts whenever a possible success comes along. They urge us to look around the corner for catches and be cautious around words like hope.

Yet, if we’re not careful, losing can cultivate a self-fulfilling prophecy where that’s all we see.

My dear friend pops into my mind. Like me and my wife, she suffered multiple miscarriages. After years of losses, she was offered a possibility of adoption through family. Through tears she said, “I just can’t believe this is true. I can’t be happy about this until it’s all final.” The muscle tenses to protect us. My wife wisely counseled her, “Yes, but you also get one chance to be excited. This is that moment. You can handle disappointment; now you find out you can handle hope, too.”

Our movement cannot thrive if we’re nothing but a puddle of doubt and denial. Us getting locked into a commitment to doomism may allow us to emotionally self-congratulate ourselves about being right — but it will burn out movement energy. The wise choose a path of #NotTooLate.

Affirming progress helps with that. 

The good

Manchin is proud that the end result is fiscally sound. The bill pays for everything primarily by taxing the richest corporations (with a 15 percent minimum tax). It leaves around $300 billion to pay the federal deficit

But with the climate crisis, the yardstick isn’t GDP. As Greta Thunberg has said over and over. It’s CO2e: carbon dioxide equivalents.

Progressive think tank Energy Innovation said that even when all the bad things are factored in: “For every ton of emissions increases generated by IRA oil and gas provisions, at least 24 tons of emissions are avoided by the other provisions.” 

They estimate the bill prevents 870-1,150 million metric tons of CO2e. They estimate that by 2030 the legislation will add 1.5 million new jobs and save 3,900 people’s lives from the better air we’ll breathe.

Their bottomline is being echoed by other analyses by Princeton University’s REPEAT and Rhodium GroupBy 2030, the IRA bill will reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 37-41 percent below 2005 levels.

For the first time in my lifetime, it gets us in the race on climate. It won’t get the United States to uphold its end of the Paris Climate Agreement — but there’s been no pathway without it. Now, with aggressive local and state action, it’s a winnable achievement. But that’s no guarantee.

I still don’t sound solidly happy about this step forward, do I?

Unnoticed by most mainstream press is $60 billion for climate justice priorities — funds specifically for block grants, green banks and clean energy emissions for low-income and disadvantaged communities. This is a major shift in tone, funding and priorities. It’s one where the devil lives very much in the details — but it’s a far cry from climate bills a decade ago which had none of this.

This is significantly better than the status quo. And that does not just happen. That is power conceding because there was a demand. Even if it’s not a complete climate win.

And now I’m beginning to remember that movements don’t ever win. At least, not in the sense that most of us typically think about.

EQAT’s win

Earth Quaker Action Team, or EQAT, asked me to facilitate on the heels of a major announcement in 2005. They are a direct action campaign in Philadelphia that fought for four years to get PNC to stop funding mountaintop removal coal mining. PNC had just given in to their demand.

So there I was, leading about 40 campaigners in a stuffy third floor room. I put up a single piece of newsprint and waited as people arrived. I could tell it was a mix of emotions. 

Leaders told me the policy from PNC Bank was good, but felt murky. Essentially PNC said they’ll stop funding any projects that have investments up to a certain percentage of mountaintop removal coal mining. Rainforest Action Network, which had done the hard work of negotiating the deal behind-the-scenes, said this was a very strong deal. Even with that reassurance, leaders of the group still had mixed feelings.

They had fought PNC Bank for a long time, and they knew people who had died from PNC’s banking practices. Where was justice? What would the impact really be? 

This was not the image most people picture of a group after winning a victory following a multi-year campaign. Yet, my memory of past campaign wins was that it was actually a typical moment. So I led the group through a simple exercise, asking people to share how they felt. I put the feeling up on the newsprint as best as I could:

– Happy
– Disappointed
– Really confused about what this means
– Still trying to process
– So pleased
– Stunned
– Worried about what our allies think
– Worried what I think
– Worried about what others in this room think
– Proud and confused why anyone is worried
– Angry — they shouldn’t just get out of the business without picking up their messes
– Pissed off they didn’t do this sooner

The list continued until we had filled up the newsprint. 

Then I announced that I wanted to share with them about how people are when social movements achieve wins. They trusted me and waited.

I scribbled on top of the newsprint: “Daniel’s Theory of Social Movements Wins.” I then re-read all the feeling states — normalizing each one as a natural reaction.

I explained this feeling of being internally torn is natural. “We run campaigns because of values, like environmental sanity and freedom to choose our futures. Values aren’t reflected into policy. We don’t run campaigns because we want a 5 percent increase in affordable housing funding or simply because we wanted a single bank to stop funding mountaintop removal coal mining. We want justice. But there’s no moment when we see our values are suddenly acted upon by all. It’s a process.”

There are many roles that got us the pieces of the wins that matter to us. Claim them. Nobody else is likely to do it for you.

The great historian Vincent Harding was right in describing movements as rivers. We step into the river, give our contribution, and the river keeps moving on and on. “Winning” is a foreign concept to a river and does not speak to how movement rivers turn, bend and flow.

I told the group of my own past campaign wins. When we won a big pot of funding for affordable housing, not one person we knew had a home yet. So it was a mixed blessing — a promissory note that felt like another long fight to actually get people homes, all while people needed roofs over their heads.

Achieving a campaign victory, even as cleanly as EQAT did, doesn’t mean it’s over. It’s a moment to note how the course of the river has changed. To acknowledge the ancestors upstream and to make an invitation for others to join the stream too.

And this is where celebrating is so crucial. Who will want to join the river if it’s all sadness and misery? Who will acknowledge our contributions if we fail to name it ourselves? 

With that, I asked the group if it would be okay to give themselves permission to celebrate their accomplishments. We cheered amidst tears and relief. We weren’t cheering PNC, or even the policy change, but the web of communities and practices of resistance that were building a better world, inch by inch.

Claim your role

When talking about this bill, the New York Times will not mention Standing Rock or the Global Climate March. They will scrub the movement’s role away and focus on the political intrigue around Sinema and Manchin. 

That makes this moment crucial to acknowledge the pieces you like about this bill and note you and your group’s efforts in the movement ecosystem. There are many roles that got us the pieces of the wins that matter to us. Claim them. Nobody else is likely to do it for you.

When you do, that makes more space for future activists to believe that bigger changes can also happen. Show the movement stream that leads to the $37.5 million to reduce air pollution in schools located in low-income and disadvantaged communities and $400 million to upgrade school buses in overburdened communities. Let people see how protests in the streets, organizing in communities and turnout at the polls adds up.

If you’re not excited about it for you, then do it for the next generation. They’ll need it. 

Do it because naming and reviewing the movement’s progress helps build momentum for the next win and the win after that. People want to join positive teams that burst with love and energy. 

Actually, if you’re not excited about doing it for you, still do it for you. I remember at the end of a decade-long campaign trudging through the winter snow to go to a victory party. I swear I didn’t want to do it — until I arrived. I needed to be with my people to allow space inside myself to adjust, make meaning and unburden a place inside of me where I secretly feared we would never win anything.

It feels good to let ourselves feel good about an achievement.

So, after all this, I am going to organize a little party to teach what we won, honor what’s good that we like and commit to continue on the struggle. I hope you’ll join me with your own form of celebrating, too.


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