At Last, a Real Possibility to Avoid Catastrophic Climate Change

After decades of minimal action, Congress passed the largest and most comprehensive piece of climate legislation in U.S. history. Will we make the most of this opportunity?

Editor's note: This article ran as part of a larger climate feature in our Winter 2022 issue. You can read the rest of the accompanying stories here, here, and here

If you were a bird soaring over the American landscape in 2022, you would be hard-pressed to find any part untouched by climate change. A Western Sandpiper, in its journey down the Pacific Coast, would have suffered through a historic heat wave in California that brought triple-digit temperatures to the Hollywood Hills. A Burrowing Owl hunting under the red buttes of Arizona and Utah may have noticed that years of drought have driven Lake Powell and Lake Mead to dangerously low levels. In the relentless summer rains that flooded central Appalachia, an Indigo Bunting might have fled an inundated Kentucky holler for higher ground. A Bald Eagle pair in southern Florida could have found their nest blown away from Hurricane Ian’s ferocious winds.

These disasters, which killed hundreds of people and cost billions of dollars in damage to homes and critical infrastructure, are bleak portents of a future ruined by runaway greenhouse-gas emissions. But finally, after many years of tireless activism, lobbying, and campaigning, we have an opportunity to stave off that fate—the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the largest and most comprehensive piece of climate legislation in this nation’s history. It’s as American a law as one could imagine: forged in great drama and spectacle, challenged and weakened by corporate interests, and in the end a far-from-perfect behemoth pieced together with many unsatisfying compromises. And its success remains uncertain, hinging on the hard work and smart decisions of state governments and local communities and pitted against the same powerful, monied interests that have delayed meaningful climate policy until now.

The mere fact of the IRA’s passage in August felt miraculous. Build Back Better, which you may recall was the Biden administration’s earlier attempt at a package that would fund climate mitigation and adaptation, suffered a drawn-out death. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who has held considerable sway in an evenly split Senate, twice reneged on his approval for Build Back Better—first in December 2021 and then again on a renegotiated version in July.

But as the Senate drew closer to its summer recess, Manchin’s office announced its support of a surprise massive climate bill under a new name. For University of California, Santa Barbara, environmental policy professor Leah Stokes—and everyone else acutely aware of our shrinking window to meaningfully cut greenhouse-gas emissions—it was a stunning development. “I just yelled a lot, I started sobbing, it was very emotional and exhausting,” she recalls. “I thought: We cannot afford to lose, failure is not an option, and we need to get this bill over the finish line even with all the warts and flaws in it.” 

Stokes points to comparable watershed moments in American legislative history, like the Affordable Care Act and the Civil Rights Act. “You think it was celebratory and easy, that people were aligned and it was this amazing thing,” she says. “But in fact there’s a lot more conflict in passing laws, and often not just from your enemies, but your friends.” 

The fact that the bill was passed by Congress and not issued by the president as an executive order is something to celebrate in itself, because it fortifies the IRA’s commitment of federal climate action against future administrations that might seek to weaken it. Its basic numbers are impressive and unprecedented: $369 billion invested in energy and climate change programs, an estimated 40 percent reduction of 2005 greenhouse-gas emissions levels by 2030, and $60 billion to support environmental justice communities. Millions of American households are eligible for significant incentives to decarbonize the “mini power plants,” to borrow Stokes’s terminology, of their homes—their own private networks of stoves and cars and furnaces. 

The IRA offers the promise of planet-saving emissions reductions, but it also comes maddeningly packaged with new sources of emissions. The law is laden with protections for fossil fuel infrastructure and opportunities for its expansion—understood to be the consequence of Manchin’s linchpin role in the bill’s passage. It is almost fabulistic: The widely reviled “coal baron senator” becomes an invaluable ally who will extract a price for his allegiance. Yet he also represents a region that has a great deal to gain or to lose depending on the IRA’s implementation. 

The landmark law is “the proverbial two-edged sword,” says Sean O’Leary, senior researcher with the Ohio River Valley Institute, a Pennsylvania-based think tank. “The Act makes significant contributions to things that are badly needed in the region, like energy efficiency and renewable resources, things that will have a disproportionate impact here,” he says. “At the same time, it does provide perversely large incentives that would have the effect of preserving and even expanding the natural gas industry and potentially even coal-fired power.” 

Appalachia would hardly be the only region to suffer from such fossil-fuel–friendly provisions in the IRA. In Alaska, the Gwich’in and Iñupiat peoples have recommitted to their ongoing fight to keep fossil fuel companies out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as the IRA provides no such protection for the sacred and ecologically crucial preserve. Environmental advocacy organizations along the Gulf Coast have expressed outrage and disappointment that offshore oil and gas lease sales previously revoked will now proceed due to mandated approval by the Department of the Interior.

The IRA also ties renewable energy development to fossil fuels by requiring at least 60 million acres of offshore oil and gas lease offerings before offshore wind leases can go forward—a quid pro quo that will impact coastal communities already disproportionately impacted by fossil fuel development. “That is probably the most problematic and controversial part of this bill,” says Irena Como, Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney. 

The IRA, with all its contradictions and trade-offs, encapsulates a new and perhaps overwhelming reality for environmentalists. There are still plenty of projects that should be stopped because they have real and harmful implications for human, animal, and botanical lives. At the same time, there is nothing more threatening to those lives than planetary collapse brought about by runaway greenhouse-gas emissions—and abating those will require the reconstruction of the most fundamental elements of our daily lives. The years to come will require a precarious balancing act, one in which we build the world we need tomorrow without sacrificing too much of the ecosystems we rely on today. 

These details will define how this historical legislation transforms from a funding package into infrastructure that actually enables communities to reduce their carbon emissions. “Congress did its job by passing the Inflation Reduction Act, the president signed it, but the real work happens at the state level,” says Sarah Rose, Audubon’s vice president of climate. “Infrastructure development, new renewable resources, new transmission, transition to a new energy grid—that is all state action and that happens on the ground.” Local public utility commissions, for example, will need to approve clean energy projects and ensure that permitting processes exist to allow those developments to connect to the grid. 

“What we’ve learned over the past 20 years of development is that the science has gotten better, clean energy project footprints have gotten smaller, technology has improved, and so there are a lot of opportunities for us to think more intentionally and carefully about how to site and position new clean energy facilities and transmission to limit the impacts on habitats,” says Rose. That requires being smart and selective in addressing the threats that certain siting decisions pose to bird populations, such as ensuring that a new solar project doesn’t overlap with a nesting site or important migratory stopover. 

The years to come need not be imbued with dread, but with the thrill that accompanies possibility. There is hope yet that in 5, 10, or 20 years, birds in flight might witness something very different from fires and floods: interconnecting ribbons of trains and buses and roads dotted with electric vehicle charging stations, many millions of homes enjoying clean air and green energy, and, all throughout, a whole nation of living things breathing a deep sigh of relief. 

This story originally ran in the Winter 2022 issue as “An Avoidable Fate.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.