Aug 15, 2022
The Inflation Reduction Act is being hailed by the mainstream climate movement, Congress members, and the media as the most important climate bill in U.S. history. That's a pretty low bar, and it says more about our government's long record of failure on climate than it does about whether this law can prevent dangerous temperature increases in coming decades.
The lion's share of spending in the IRA is directed toward producing new capacity for generating and distributing energy and for developing new technologies that consume energy. Only a small portion of the package will go to environmental justice, affordable housing and insulation, and the nation's lands and waters. And it doesn't mandate a reduction in use of fossil fuels. Indeed, rather than shutter gas- and coal-fired power plants, the government will reward them with subsidies or tax credits if they keep operating and capture the emissions. And rather than ban further drilling for oil and gas on federal lands, the bill guarantees that plenty of new oil and gas leases will be issued.
If we don't find a way to snuff out fossil fuels, directly, on a crash schedule, the climate emergency will only intensify.
But wait--there's more! In exchange for his essential "yes" vote on the IRA, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) extracted the promise of a second bill that would streamline the permitting of energy infrastructure projects, including oil and gas pipelines and coal mines. Manchin's chief aim in this new bill was ensure completion of the Mountain Valley Gas Pipeline through his state of West Virginia. Once in use, the pipeline will be responsible for an annual quantity of greenhouse gas emissions equal to the output of 26 coal-fired power plants, while also imperiling hundreds of streams and wetlands.
IRA boosters claim that the emissions prevented by the new law will far outweigh the emissions that its pro-fossil-fuel measures will engender. That assertion rests on economic modelers' speculative assumption that the new law will work through market forces to steeply reduce the use of fossil fuels. In fact, the IRA contains no provisions for a direct, surefire phase-out of fossil fuels; therefore, no one can guarantee that it will reduce emissions by 40 percent. Yes, our society is better off with the IRA having passed than we would be without its passage. But if we don't find a way to snuff out fossil fuels, directly, on a crash schedule, the climate emergency will only intensify.
Why Climate's Off the Stovetop
General excitement over the IRA has not dispelled a heightening sense of dread and discombobulation throughout our society. The weather's going haywire. Representative government and human rights are under increasingly violent threat from extremists, many of them public officials. States are stripping away women's right to bodily autonomy. The economy of the 1970s has returned, and systemic racism never left.
Humans can pay close attention to only so many crises simultaneously, so we perhaps should not be surprised that several surveys show climate change falling lower on the list of public concerns. To make matters worse, passage of the IRA may engender a dangerous new sense of complacency on climate: "Oh, good! That's one problem solved!"
All of this prompted me to speak with some perceptive climate writers and activists who continue to urge that movements unite across issues to confront all of these crises--including climate--all at once, however daunting that prospect may be.
Aviva Chomsky is a professor of history at Salem State University in Massachusetts. She has written seven books, most recently "Is Science Enough?: Forty Critical Questions About Climate Justice" and Central America's Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration," both from Beacon Press. When I asked her about the seemingly perverse, widespread apathy about climate, she said, "I think there's still a strong sense that, oh, well, our institutions are going to take care of it. Okay, maybe that's the case with issues like abortion or gun violence that seem to have very clear and simple solutions that can be solved by our elected officials, if we just elect the right people." But, she noted, greenhouse-gas emissions are deeply embedded in myriad ways throughout society and can't be eliminated without a thoroughgoing transformation--and most politicians are allergic to that idea.
"To me, there's no candidate who has an adequate platform on climate anywhere in the United States. So, as a voter, why should I rank climate as an important election issue? I'd be much more likely to vote for someone who's going to protect abortion rights, because that's something where I actually see there's a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans." With that kind of calculus driving opinion-poll responses, Chomsky says, "I don't think it necessarily means that people don't care about climate."
(This difference in tractability between climate and other issues was illuminated a few days after Chomsky and I spoke, when my adopted home state, deep red Kansas, voted in a landslide to defeat an amendment to the state constitution that would have stripped away the right to an abortion. Needless to say, the probability of such a sudden, dramatic victory on eradication of fossil fuels is microscopic.)
I also spoke with Richard Heinberg, a senior fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and the author of fourteen books, most recently "Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival" (New Society, 2021). "Our ability to act at scale," he said, "is being hampered by all this other stuff. Suddenly all these crises are coming at us from all these different directions. So doing something really big and long term [about climate and our transgression of ecological limits] gets pushed not just to the back burner, but off the stovetop altogether."
Heinberg said that in the 1970s, when some environmentalists were arguing that industrialized societies cannot be sustained over the long term without deep transformation, the environmental establishment's response was, in effect, "Oh, well, we can't really do all of that." Therefore, he recalls, "Legislative efforts to fix the unsustainability of industrial society devolved down into little projects to target this area of pollution, or clean up that toxic waste site or whatever. I think the general idea was that all these little efforts would eventually add up to something major, which they really haven't done." Now, a half-century later, the political establishment remains stuck in "little efforts" mode.
Liz Karosick, a visual artist and climate activist with the group Extinction Rebellion in Washington, D.C. (XRDC), agrees that the urgency of fending off an array of political and human-rights disasters has, at least temporarily, kept climate in the background. "It feels like all of this is splintering us further in a lot of ways, because you have all of these specific problems that are intersectional and all feed back into one another. It's like they're just trying to keep dividing us. And that's the last thing we need right now."
We Don't Have to Accept This
There could be a twist, though. The fact that we are seeing so much of what we value being imperiled all at once can be energizing. Says Karosick, "All of these threats are under the umbrella of an unjust system. It fundamentally has to be changed. And that's why, with Extinction Rebellion, we're disrupting business as usual."
Chomsky also believes, based on her experience as a historian of Latin America, that cascading crises shouldn't inevitably trigger despair and apathy. "Our culture of acceptance of capitalism," she says, "just doesn't exist in the same way in the formerly colonized countries; they see very clearly how much exploitation occurs in the capitalist system, whether it's exploitation of labor, of land, of peasants, or of the natural world." She believes that "the kinds of comforting myths about how capitalism works" that permeate our society just don't work as well in regions like Latin America. And that opens up other, better routes to the future in those regions.
"How," for example, she asks, "have Latin Americans united and brought about fundamental social change, either through armed revolution, or through the ballot box, or through some combination thereof? And why does the left seem so much stronger, even when they're in much more dangerous, difficult circumstances than the left in the United States?"
Chomsky offers one answer: "In Latin America we see the real strength of peasant movements, indigenous movements, African-descended movements, peasant struggles for land against a corporate dominated economic model. You know, every Latin American revolution has had strong peasant participation. And every Latin American government has confronted the peasant struggle for land, which is a class struggle. And it's a global struggle, because they're struggling against not only local elites but also global corporations. That's something we don't have here in the U.S."
Karosick thinks she may see a ray of light through the gloom, even in the U.S.: "At this year's Juneteenth celebration in D.C., one of the organizers was talking about how before Covid, there was so much momentum. So many people working across organizations, something really building, and then Covid really just took the wind out of the sails. But it's interesting--there's now a general sense that these relationships are coming back together, across organizations."
That same weekend, at the June 18 Poor People's March on Washington, Karosick says, "You had all of these hundreds of groups coming together. And across the climate movement, specifically in Extinction Rebellion, we are joining with local residents and marginalized people who are being affected disproportionately by the climate crisis. There are definite opportunities to unite, and we're definitely starting to sense that this is happening."
In his recent writing, Heinberg has argued that in the affluent world, the ecological crisis is in part a result of what he terms deadly optimism. He described it to me this way: "We've now had seventy years or so of extreme optimism. Our public discourse has been dominated by the idea that we're always going to enjoy 'more, bigger, and faster' because that's good for business. But now we've reached the point where we can't continue down that road. And a lot of bills are coming due from that era of excessive optimism--climate change, but lots of other things, too. So suddenly, we have a kind of pervasive pessimism sweeping society."
For decades, Heinberg has been warning of what he's now calling a "Great Unraveling." In his book "Power," he writes that in recent years, in his private conversations with scientists and activists, a common theme is that an unraveling looms in our near future. "We understand that a lot of our institutions are going to fail," he told me. "We're going into a difficult time and we're going to have to adapt. But we have to be determined to exclude the worst possible outcomes."
If, instead, we were to "just give up on doing whatever they can to make things better, if we were to spend all our effort only looking out for ourselves, the result would be a dystopian nightmare." The best alternative to either deadly optimism or fatalistic pessimism, he says, is "sort of like what psychologists call 'defensive pessimism.'" Those folks chose an extraordinarily unappealing term, so Heinberg has suggested alternatives, including "useful pessimism." But whatever we call this stance, he suggests, "the motivating ideal . . . might be stated as 'respecting limits and living well within them.'"
Chomsky also advocates for channeling pessimism constructively, and that, she believes, will require even more on-the-ground organizing: "I almost feel like we don't even have enough of a critical mass in this country to engage in serious protest. We should be focusing on building that critical mass. In Witness for Peace, which I worked with a lot in Colombia, every time we had a protest or other activity, the question was, what's the ask? In Latin America, street protest has been criminalized, yet massive street protests occur nonetheless. And they generally have very clear and coherent asks. And they've often been successful. If we achieve the critical mass, and if we have a coherent ask, we can do it, too."
"Even though it looks grim, and it is grim for many already," says Karosick, "every degree of warming we can prevent matters. So we can't let up." Pointing to a Yale University survey finding that 28 percent of voters would support nonviolent civil disobedience by climate groups, Karosnik said, "That's huge. There is a sense that people are starting to get really frustrated with the government's inability to do anything with this crisis, and are willing to push them harder. I think people are very aware of what the problem is," and, she says, they're coming to realize that "nonviolent civil disobedience is a mechanism to get the government to pay attention and to make change."
Regarding movements like the Poor Peoples' Campaign and Extinction Rebellion that are striving for critical mass and do have very clear demands for systemic change--even against what could be the longest of odds--Chomsky was reflective: "Yeah, I think we have no choice but to push harder despite everything, on two grounds. One, because even if it seems impossible, we're making it impossible if we don't do anything. And two, because we just have to. Even if there's no hope of success, we still have to, if we're to live with ourselves."
The original version of this article was published as part of the 'In Real Time' series by City Lights Books. See the 'In Real Time' archive and evolving visual work here; listen to the 'In Real Time' podcast for the spoken version; and hear Stan on the monthly Anti-Empire Project podcast.
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