Yes, the Inflation Reduction Act is the most consequential piece of climate legislation in the U.S. Yes, it’s also the only federal legislation. Yes, it’s imperfect. Yes, parts of it are downright vile. Yes, the negotiations exacerbated tensions between insider green organizations and those on the frontlines.
But let’s be real, nothing more is going to pass at the federal level in the foreseeable future. So now that the IRA is the law of the land, how do organizers and movement players work with it?
As long-time organizers and climate justice activists, we see organizing opportunities in the roughly $390 billion in climate funding available. As an analysis from Just Solutions points out, the bill was not written for climate justice. But there’s a ton of money that suddenly we can access for poor and disenfranchised communities — and it would be a wasted opportunity to leave that money on the table.
With all its limitations, the IRA can further our campaigns if we use the opportunity.
The public knows there is a problem
Bills are like an ecological indicator species — in this case, showing how the times have changed on climate. The bill was not passed because of Democrats’ deep commitment to climate justice — otherwise they would not still be offering up public lands for oil and gas, begging Saudi Arabian tyrants for discounts, or entertaining fast-tracking provisions written by fossil fuel companies. If they understood climate justice, they’d be declaring that fossil fuel companies should save the globe and kill themselves.
But like a creaky weathervane, Democrats are following the changing winds. People know climate change is a problem and are ready to see action on this.
In his Movement Action Plan, movement organizer and activist Bill Moyer charts the course of major social movements. He talks about three times the public must be convinced: 1. that there is a problem; 2. that current conditions and policies created this problem and have to be opposed; and 3. that alternative policies need to be embraced and implemented.
Somewhere in the last couple of years there’s a marked change where it’s now clear that we are winning the first two. Though your county or state may be a little further behind or ahead than others, the overall shift has accelerated. U.S. polling shows consistently wide support for climate policies. The largest investment firm, BlackRock, says it’s time to start preparing for a net-zero economy. Amazon is throwing up advertising touting climate action. After each climate disaster, mainstream media are more quickly linking it to climate change and local politicians are often urging climate action afterwards.
This greenwashing creates new problems as it advances false solutions — but it is also a signal that the weathervane has shifted. Even though some remain climate change deniers, the majority of the country has shifted.
Democrats sensed this and cobbled together a bill.
The bill is remarkable, given the givens
To understand what’s in the IRA, it’s wise to respect the political conditions that shaped it.
We have to start with the grassroots groups who built the political pressure. The Sunrise Movement spent its entire organizing cycle fighting for a (better) version of this bill. They engaged in direct action, smart electoral campaigning and built a huge organization with hundreds of hubs. More importantly, they changed the zeitgeist and made the Green New Deal something that cool young elected officials saw as vital.
This led to the “inside ball game,” where the designers of the bill knew they would get no Republican support. That made the bill very vulnerable to being undone whenever Republicans retake the House, Senate and/or presidency.
Not that getting the support of Democrats was easy. Sen. Joe Machin’s highly reluctant vote required accommodations and a promise from Sen. Chuck Schumer for a bill — the so-called “side deal” to fast-track his pipeline and other preferred projects — which is currently dead but risks a zombie-like reintroduction. At the same time, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s vote required major carve outs for the business community (largely in the non-climate portions of the bills).
The bill’s creators accommodated this political reality in a couple of ways. One, they made this bill all carrots. There were almost no sticks (apart from a minor methane fee under specific circumstances). Early drafts to punish coal plants pollution were discarded — and only financial encouragements for doing the right thing remained.
This made the bill easier to digest. Even climate skeptics will take the money. It is a vast experiment in modern day neo-liberal industrial policy. Government creates the incentives, and they are flowing primarily to major corporations alongside tiny amounts to consumers, places of worship and school districts.
In this sense, the bill buys constituents. It spreads money to solar and wind companies, carbon capture researchers, heat pump manufacturers, investors to retrofit schools, communities living near climate disaster zones, home energy efficiency auditors, and the list goes on and on.
The IRA could be one pathway to delivering something real and tangible in communities where progressives do not usually organize.
These benefits are not spread evenly, and that’s an important criticism. The largest chunks of money go toward large corporations and flow to regular people when they’re acting as consumers. But from the perspective of establishing a bill that can withstand Republican opposition, buying new constituents makes it harder for Republicans to kill it. Any Republican changes to the bill require taking money from people.
The second method was that the law’s creators never made it implemented by a single body or policy change. It is a hard-to-kill multi-headed hydra. Think about how the Affordable Care Act, despite being wildly popular as policy, was regularly on the chopping block by Republicans. Only a lack of a political alternative prevented Republicans from killing the popular bill.
Instead, the Inflation Reduction Act is more like 50 bills packed into one. Each one is targeted differently and moves differently. Bureaucratically, money moves through the EPA (like the Green Bank), the IRS, the Departments of Interior, Energy, Labor, Transportation, Agriculture, FEMA, the USPS ($3 billion for their electric fleet), and even the Department of Defense gets $500 million to grow their “clean technology manufacturing.”
This makes a lot of targets — a maze of funding rabbit holes, which will be a challenge for even the aggressive Republican machinery to catch them all.
This bill was designed to survive.
Another key note here: Regularly the bill is described as somewhere between $369 and $390 billion. That isn’t a hard limit. It’s based on estimates on how the bill will play out by the Congressional Budget Office, or CBO.
Certain parts of the bill are capped, such as the $4.3 billion to states to provide rebates for home energy upgrades (like getting better insulation in houses) or the $50 million in grants to address air pollution in poor and low-income areas.
But the cost of many of the bill’s provisions are estimates and have no upper limit. For example, the “Clean Energy Production Tax Credit” gives bonuses for new energy projects that do not contribute to carbon emissions. It offers 0.05 cents per kilowatt hour that each project produces. But if more projects come online, then the government will pay more than the $62.2 billion projected by the CBO.
For the savvy long-term organizer, targeting these “no upper limit” areas avoids the zero-sum game of fighting for limited resources.
Some people believe the CBO’s figures are low. The investment bank Credit Suisse took a look at the numbers and said actual costs would be double. They contend that the bill will actually lead to over $800 billion in spending, largely because they believe the private sector is going to rush into these new profitable areas far faster than the CBO estimates. This bill “definitively changes the narrative from risk mitigation to opportunity capture,” the Credit Suisse report claims.
However it unfolds, this bill was designed to survive and massively shift our economy.
What is an activist to do?
Activists are already experimenting with some ways to leverage that money on the table.
Comrades over at Sunrise Movement have charted one pathway: building local Green New Deals and investing in the people and political power to make the next iteration of big policy possible. 350 Minnesota thinks that IRA funds can be leveraged as part of a Peoples Climate Equity Plan in Minneapolis that will actually implement a local Green New Deal prioritizing African-American neighborhoods in North Minneapolis first.
In Detroit, organizers right now are door knocking low-income and working-class folks with offers to help deliver weatherization and solar. Since those benefits can only be accessed when taxes are due, they are working on upfront financing. By receiving those services, people are being brought into an organizing model that teaches about our unfair tax system and politicizes them for more organizing power.
And there are many more doors available. The IRA offers money that liberal, urban-centered organizations can use to move out of our progressive big city organizing bubble and organize different constituencies. The IRA could be one pathway to delivering something real and tangible in communities where progressives do not usually organize.
Even in places that are often densely organized, there are opportunities that may get missed. Nonprofits and churches now can benefit from the bill’s uncapped solar funds (no longer do they have to pay taxes to get their savings). Or cities and school districts can get access to pools of money for renewable energy, weatherization and dealing with air pollution.
As organizers we can help deliver particular benefits situated in a larger campaign around educational justice or policy changes at the city or county level.
Coming out of labor, a group called Bargaining for the Common Good provides a good template for campaigning not just on the specifics of your “targeted win” but incorporating community demands. In 2019, the teachers union in Los Angeles entered into testy contract negotiations. Rather than just ask for better wages and health care for their own members, the teachers union demanded changes in class size, green spaces, health and how students were policed.
Following this model, school unions could demand that the district transition to solar, provide easier pathways for local solar jobs, and create a community-owned solar project on school district-owned land, as part of contract negotiations.
Accessing the money around the IRA puts us in a little bit of a footrace with the corporate sector. Would we rather have JP Morgan Chase or British Petroleum accessing the tax incentives to convert to renewable energy, or city governments and school districts across the country? Our ability to come out of the gate fast and get that money is critical here.
If we make things work, we can build relationships not just with the most progressive of governments, but with political leadership that wants to do right by their people. We can work with government to do door-to-door outreach and help folks access benefits, but we can also provide a push for the direct pay provisions, where school districts can get up to half of their solar installation paid for directly by the government.
Despite the lack of strong climate justice provisions inside the bill, as organizers we can use this moment to center racial and economic justice in our work. BIPOC and Indigenous led Groups like the Climate Justice Alliance are both pushing the administration to ensure that racial justice is centered in implementation and helping their groups capture the money needed for community run transitions.
While utilities are going to continue resisting rooftop solar, stymying community-owned projects, and engaging in price-gouging — we can keep organizing. Even as we propose using the IRA’s carrot, we encourage wielding our sticks, challenging utility companies to democratize their governance, preventing people from getting their energy shut off and enabling all the new solar to sell energy back to the grid.
The IRA has something for movement groups of all sizes and shapes. We can use it to expand and educate our base while still increasing our militancy and relational power. We want to hear what others are doing and keep sharing our experiments — but most importantly let’s not miss the opportunity.
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