Why is Congress’s Climate Breakthrough Such a Big Deal? Because Without It, We’d Be Irreparably Off Course.

July 29, 2022 | 1:40 pm
Julie McNamara
Senior Energy Analyst

This summer, over the course of two short weeks and against the stark and staggering backdrop of climate impacts ricocheting from coast to coast and beyond, our nation’s ability to tackle climate change at the scale and scope required to meet our climate targets suffered a pair of calamitous setbacks, first from the Supreme Court and then from Congress.

In the aftermath, people in communities all across the country were left to ask: Where do we go from here?

Because the heat was still searing, the drought was still deepening, the wildfires were still burning, the extreme precipitation was still flooding, and the hurricanes were still looming. Because the costs kept mounting, the toll kept climbing, the infrastructure kept failing, and all the while we knew: Unless we act, every year from here will only be more severe.

Inaction is simply untenable, and yet inaction is what we got.

Queue the pivots, the scrambles, the frantic pointing to scraps of policy and shards of authority to attempt to keep a narrative of hope afloat.

But clarity lies in the carbon math, and the fact is, there is simply no path from such multi-faceted failure to where we need to go.

To reach the scale and scope of progress that the country and world deserve, the simple truth, the hard truth, is that at this point, we need every lever pulled and we need every actor deployed.

Which makes this late-summer return of potential congressional action such an enormously consequential reversal. To enable the shift of our nation’s climate policy from one of constant pivoting to one that’s pivotal.

Congress must get this deal done. It’s the only forward course.

Reckoning with a snapped stick and a snatched carrot

Over the past year, precisely as our ability to identify the specific magnitude of action required to hit 2030 climate targets of 50-52 percent below 2005 levels has resolved into ever clearer view, the range of viable pathways for meeting those targets has consistently and considerably narrowed.

To the ton we could see what needed to be done—and to the ton we could see that we weren’t getting it done.

Still, there always seemed some viable path. Narrower, steeper, with ever-smaller tolerance for any additional missteps or delays, but still: some viable path.

Until: A gutting one-two punch, with the Supreme Court snapping a vital climate stick followed by Congress abandoning a raft of climate investments.

Of course, a snapped stick is still a stick—shorter, yes, but no less sharp. And so it is with the immediate implications of West Virginia v. EPA: when it comes to prodding progress from coal- and gas-fired power plants, the nation’s second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, the agency is constrained, but it’s not out. That’s particularly critical, approaching irreplaceable, when it comes to driving change in laggard states.

On the other hand, Congress’s wholesale abandonment of wide-ranging climate investments could not be similarly recast. It was bad news all the way down. Beyond the first-order loss of policies that would drive progress across a wide range of issues related to the clean energy transition—from power to transportation to buildings to industry; from jobs to resilience to local direct air pollution reductions—its abandonment also had significant and severe cascading effects far outside the immediate expenditure sphere, as its loss made harder the achievement of policies and ambitions at the state and local levels, too.

There was no easy path back from losing that.

Indeed, there was no path back from losing that. There were pivots, but there was no alternative path. If we want a chance at hitting our climate targets, we need to return to that path.

Enter the late-July announcement of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022—our chance to get back on track.

How the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 will accelerate necessary change

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, a budget reconciliation compromise proposal emerging from Senators Schumer and Manchin, is itself a reflection of over a year of policy proposals, analyses, updates, and negotiations. Its power lies in its breadth—in all the many and varied ways it accelerates the transition to clean energy across our economy, from inputs, to access, to jobs and manufacturing, plus beginning to reckon with how best to cope with present and pending climate impacts.

Here, a look at just a few key pieces of note:

  • Spurring clean energy deployment through broadened tax credits, expanded access to those credits, and new incentives for building out local clean energy projects.
  • Boosting clean transportation through tax credits and investments that support electric vehicle (EV) purchases, charging infrastructure deployment, and domestic manufacturing of EVs.  
  • Incentivizing industrial decarbonization by providing grants for investments to reduce emissions and federal procurement support to backstop demand for clean products.
  • Mitigating methane emissions from oil and gas operations by supporting investments in leakage reduction technologies and charging a fee for emission exceedances.
  • Enabling environmental justice solutions through initiatives including grants supporting clean-up of major health harmers like ports and diesel vehicles, funding for National Environmental Policy Act implementation, reinstating the Superfund tax to help clean toxic sites, and funding for development of local clean energy and energy efficiency investments.
  • Supporting resilient food and farm systems through climate-focused incentives for conservation practices on farms and technical assistance for farmers.
  • Building out good jobs and domestic manufacturing by supporting strengthened labor standards and job training alongside incentives for developing domestic manufacturing to accelerate the buildout of the clean energy economy.
  • Increasing the efficiency of homes and businesses through direct backing of technologies like heat pumps; incentives for efficiency, weatherization, and electrification upgrades; and support for state and local programs further driving these changes.
  • Advancing climate resilience through investments in forest restoration and hazardous fuels reduction, funding for Tribal climate resilience and drought relief, funding for NOAA grants to help coastal communities’ resilience efforts, and funding for research, observation systems, modeling, forecasting, and public communication on weather and climate.

Beyond the bounty of what did make the proposal, good ideas, critical ideas, were left on the cutting room floor—ideas that will without question still be worth fighting for in the months and years to come. At the same time, the proposal also includes a series of potentially harmful provisions—including fossil fuel-supporting provisions that threaten to slow or undermine necessary clean energy transition progress. Those measures will require attention and dedication to stave off the worst of potential negative impacts.

No pivoting, just pivotal

As it stands, this proposal has the potential to catapult our climate progress from a current trajectory of 24-35 percent emissions reductions below 2005 levels by 2030 to 31-44 percent, according to scenario modeling conducted by Rhodium Group. That doesn’t get us to our climate targets of 50-52 percent, but it gets us on the path.

To go the full distance, we still need every actor, we still need every lever.

Yet critically, with what’s in this proposal, we can now see a way forward for driving ahead on all those additional necessary changes, from expanded and strengthened state policies, to broadened EPA standards, to power grid reforms, to making the next Farm Bill a climate bill, to so much more.

But we can’t pivot to those in place of this—we need them alongside of this.

Which means, to start, we need this. Join us, and call for Congress to get this package done.