They really did. The Lower Inflation Act, which is basically a climate change bill with a sideline for health care reform, passed the Senate on Sunday; it looks like it will easily pass the House, so it’s on its way to becoming law.
This is a very big deal. The act alone is not enough to avert climate catastrophe. But it’s a huge step in the right direction and sets the stage for more action in the years to come. It will catalyze progress in green technologies; its economic benefits will facilitate the passage of additional legislation; it gives the United States the credibility it needs to lead global efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Of course, there are cynics who want to denigrate the achievement. Some on the left rushed towards rejected the bill as a giveaway to the fossil fuel industry, posing as environmental action. More importantly, Republicans — who unanimously opposed the legislation — are shouting the usual things they shout: Big spending! Inflation!
But real energy and environmental experts are giddy at what has been achieved, and serious economists are unconcerned about the effect on inflation.
Start with the ecological side. Many people I talk to suggest that President Biden’s environmental agenda, as contained in his original Build Back Better proposal, must have been significantly watered down in the legislation we actually got. After all, didn’t the Democrats have to make big concessions to win Sen. Joe Manchin? Aren’t there major giveaways to fossil fuel interests, like aid for a controversial natural gas pipeline?
However, energy analysts believe that any adverse climate effects from these rebates will be absorbed by gains from clean energy tax credits. The REPEAT project, put together by Princeton’s ZERO Lab, did a side-by-side comparison of emissions cuts under the Inflation Reduction Act and the House’s earlier version of Build Back Better. By 2035, the IRA, they estimate, will provide more than 90 percent of the emissions reductions that the BBB would achieve. After all this legislative drama, Biden’s climate policy has emerged largely intact.
How was that possible? From the outset, the Biden administration decided that its climate policy would be all carrots, no sticks—that it would provide incentives to do the right thing, not penalties for doing the wrong thing. We hoped that this strategy would prove politically feasible in a way that, say, a carbon tax could not. And this hope was justified.
Moreover, it is a strategy that seems likely to pay political dividends in the future. A new study by E. Mark Curtis and Ioana Marinescu finds that “the growth of renewable energy leads to the creation of relatively high-paying jobs that are more often located in areas that stand to lose from the decline of fossil fuel jobs mining sites’.
So what did the Biden administration lose? Unfortunately, much of the social costs The BBB originally included – child tax credits, universal pre-K and more – was scaled back. This is tragic, even though the increased subsidies for health insurance — which helped drive America’s uninsured rate to record lows — were extended. But Democrats have followed through on their climate promises, more or less entirely.
What about the criticism from the right? Aside from the pathetic attempt to present the IRA as a big tax increase on the middle class, Republicans like Mitt Romney are trying to conflate this legislation with last year’s bailout, which they claim led to a spike in inflation.
The climate and the world are changing. What challenges will the future bring and how should we respond to them?
It doesn’t matter if this statement is true. The main thing is to do the math. The Deflation Act calls for spending less than $500 billion over a decade, compared to the US bailout’s $1.9 trillion a year — and will actually reduce the deficit. Therefore, independent analysts believe that this will not have much effect on inflation.
But if the costs are not very large, how can they have such a large impact? The answer is that we are currently sitting on some threshold. Renewable energy technology has made revolutionary advances and renewable energy sources are now cheaper in many areas than fossil fuels. A moderate push from public policy is all that will be needed to transition to a much greener economy. And the Inflation Reduction Act will provide that boost.
Given all that, though, why did every single Republican senator vote against the IRA? Not all are ignorant and innumerable; I’m pretty sure Romney, for one, knows he’s talking nonsense.
Nor can we easily invoke differences in ideology. The IRA’s climate push relies mostly on tax credits — and Republicans themselves have used tax credits to achieve social goals, such as the (much-maligned) Opportunity Zone credits in Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts.
Almost certainly what we are really looking at is the politics of malice. Every Republican in the Senate was willing to destroy our best chance to avoid climate catastrophe simply to deny the Biden administration a victory.
The good news is that the legislation passed despite their malice. And the world is a more hopeful place than it was just a few weeks ago.