Climate activists grapple with what comes after the climate bill

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This is the time towards which climate activists were working.

After years of protests and political struggles, Congress is set to pass its most important climate law ever: a record $369 billion that will be invested in clean energy projects, vehicle incentives electricity and a program to combat methane pollution. The legislation will position the largest producer of greenhouse gases in history closer to achieving the emissions cuts scientists say are needed to avoid disastrous warming.

Still, celebrations around the bill among Democrats and activists this week have troubled Rhiana Gunn-Wright, one of the authors of the Green New Deal Framework who had driven the climate movement so much in recent years.

“What was so painful for a lot of people, including me, was to see the celebration of a note of this ‘historic’ bill,” said Rhiana Gunn-Wright, director of climate policy at the group of liberal reflection Roosevelt Institute.

While Gunn-Wright agreed the bill was probably the best this Congress could come up with, she wanted environmental groups to be equally vocal about its potential harm to low-income people of color who are disproportionately likely to live near fossil fuel polluting infrastructure that also get a boost in the bill as part of a hard-negotiated political compromise.

After the bill passed the Senate on Sunday, she recalled seeing mostly white activists tweeting about hugging their children, proud that climate progress had finally been made.

“I got it, I got it,” said Gunn-Wright, who is black. “But I looked at my own 8-month-old baby and I didn’t feel that. What I felt most was that yes, we’ve made progress, but I couldn’t tell him that it would not be a day at his expense.

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With the House poised to approve the bill on Friday, and President Biden signing it into law soon after, the climate movement is poised for its greatest legislative success. But tensions within the movement have also surfaced in recent days as activists grapple with the challenge of figuring out what comes next – after testing the limits, for now, of the US political system.

“It’s clear to me that this is both a big step forward and there’s still work to be done,” said Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the youth-led Sunrise movement. “And we have to make it clear to young people that this happened because of them and we have to keep going.”

Prakash called the moment “bittersweet”.

“I find myself thinking that this bill is not enough. It leaves people out,” she said. “Many communities will still be left with a status quo of pollution and degradation in the places where they live and work.”

“And yet,” she added, “it has to pass to give my generation even a fighting chance. [of] live in a world that avoids the worst of climate catastrophe.

Legislation that emerged this summer from secret talks between Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.) is a far cry from the climate and social spending agenda of $3.5 trillion originally proposed. by Biden.

This is even further from the original vision supported by the Sunrise Movement and other liberal groups: a broad agenda for social justice and environmental action that would invest trillions of dollars in overhauling the economy.

To secure Manchin’s support, the Inflation Reduction Act includes several provisions that will benefit the fossil fuel industry: a commitment to open new oil and gas concessions in the Gulf of Mexico; a pledge that congressional Democrats and the White House will complete a controversial pipeline carrying gas from West Virginia; and a promise to pursue a separate measure that would ease permitting requirements for fossil fuel facilities as well as clean energy infrastructure. It also allocates billions of dollars for carbon capture and storage – a technology that many climate advocates say it fails to address air pollution and other local threats to communities.

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That the Senate has passed any kind of climate legislation is a testament to the growth and unity of the environmental movement in recent years, said University of Maryland sociologist Dana Fisher, who has studied climate change. climate policy and activism for over 20 years.

Environmental groups have increasingly framed the fight against climate change as an opportunity to tackle economic inequality, racial injustice and a range of other social issues. That vision drew younger, more diverse activists to the climate movement and, combined with the increasingly apparent dangers of global warming, helped mobilize millions to protest and vote, Fisher said. By the time Biden was elected, climate and environmental justice concerns had become centerpieces of the Democratic agenda.

And when Manchin announced in December that he would no longer participate in negotiations over Biden’s climate and social spending package — part of a protracted drama over legislation — “they continued to press [Democrats] and shed some light on the matter,” Fisher said. “It is impossible to imagine that we would have this bill otherwise.”

But Fisher has also spent decades following the rise and fall of proposed climate legislation: the 1997 vote against a UN pact to reduce greenhouse gas pollution; the failure of multiple bipartisan efforts to reduce emissions; and the demise in 2009 of an ambitious cap and trade program.

“Fundamentally, all of my research has shown that vested interests and fossil fuel interests have been extremely successful in consolidating power and translating their power into success in legislation,” she said.

“It makes me sound terrible,” she said, “but bringing together fossil fuel interests and climate interests one way or another…that’s why we finally got a draft law that works.”

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This political calculation has led to divisions within the coalition of mainstream “Big Green” groups, young climate activists and environmental justice organizers who contributed to this moment.

Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice for the nonprofit New York Lawyers for Public Interest, resigned Monday from the advisory board of climate group Evergreen Action, frustrated with the group’s response to the bill.

Rogers-Wright said he was particularly concerned about the side deal to ease permitting requirements, which could weaken a key environmental protection law that requires federal agencies to review the impacts of major construction projects. ‘infrastructure. Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities have frequently used the law to challenge projects that might have harmed their neighborhoods.

“That could be a demotivator,” Rogers-Wright said. “And that’s my challenge to people who celebrate that with victory laps. Are you going to go out to underserved environmental justice communities and sell that and say, ‘Look, we had to betray you to get to this? ”

“There is no ‘net justice’,” he added.

Evergreen Action co-founder and executive director Jamal Raad sees things differently.

“I think we have to look at this not as a conclusion but as a kind of catalyst moment where we use it to strengthen ourselves and build on it,” he said.

By reducing the cost of wind and solar power, he said, the bill can make it easier for states to set clean electricity standards. Investments in electric vehicles and low-carbon heating systems can catalyze industries that will then support more climate policy.

And he promised Evergreen would prioritize supporting environmental justice groups in their efforts to block harmful infrastructure.

“I fundamentally disagree that it’s worse than nothing,” Raad said. “With Democrats possibly on the verge of losing one or more chambers in November, it was imperative to act now.”

The looming midterm elections put even more pressure on advocacy groups to determine their next steps. While some worried that the bill’s disappointments would make voters less enthusiastic this fall, others have turned that logic on its head, arguing that its shortcomings point to the need to elect more politicians who support climate action.

“We need more environmental champions so we can do even bigger, bolder, more transformational things at the federal level through legislation,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs. to the League of Conservation Voters.

Prakash said Sunrise will continue to press for Biden to declare a climate emergency and take further executive action to reduce emissions. The organization also runs campaigns to help young people join school boards and advocate for Green New Deal-style policies at the city and state level.

“If anything, the past few years have taught us some real lessons about how it’s really hard to realize the full scale of your vision and values ​​when you’re not governing,” she said. . “And we need a lot more power if we want to make it bigger next time.”

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