As I begin this essay, the Senate is on the verge of passing historic legislation to tackle the climate crisis, reduce prescription-drug prices, raise taxes on big corporations, and extend Affordable Care Act subsidies, among other things. (Update: the legislation passed the Senate on Sunday, August 7th and the House on August 12th; President Biden will sign it the week of the 15th!) However, in order to secure the support of Senator Manchin (D-West Virginia), it also includes some pro-fossil fuel provisions that will increase greenhouse emissions. (To put that into perspective: for every ton of new emissions, the bill will reduce 24 tons.)
Because of those fossil components, many progressive / frontline environmental justice groups have come out in favor of the bill while expressing concerns and noting that we have to keep fighting for more environmental justice and climate action going forward. Unfortunately, some, including the Climate Justice Alliance–a group to which I have donated over the years–have decided to oppose the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (“IRA”) entirely. That kind of moral absolutism is not only infuriating, but deeply dangerous. Let’s talk about why.
First, it’s not a question of the IRA or something better; it’s the IRA or nothing at all. Because we only have 50 Democratic Senators, we need a bill that all 50 will support. To say that nothing is better than the IRA is not, as groups like the Climate Justice Alliance claim, a matter of siding with frontline communities. Rather, it’s actually a position of privilege and arrogance–saying that you are willing to consign America to more emissions because you didn’t get everything you wanted.
Second, if you read the tweets and press releases of these groups, you could be forgiven for thinking that Democrats are no better than Republicans–that both sides are in the pocket of Big Oil. For instance, Bernie Sanders started the debate on the IRA by excoriating it for things like requiring that, if there is an auction for offshore wind, there also be an auction for oil and gas leases. (Note: I hate this, but recent oil and gas auctions haven’t had any buyers, and as the price of renewables continues to plummet, there will be less and less capital available for ongoing fossil fuel production. Meanwhile, we get $369 billion in tax credits and other incentives for green production, deployment, manufacture, and consumption. Here is a great summary of what the $369 billion will achieve.)
So, are both parties the same? God no. Were it not for Senator Manchin, Democrats would’ve passed the original Build Back Better bill, which contained almost the entire Green New Deal wishlist. If we want to do more on climate and other issues, we need to elect just a few more Senate Democrats and keep the House. The real danger of this moral absolutism is that it leads the voters Democrats need most–young, idealist people–to feel demoralized and, in turn, stay home on election day.
Never has this been more clear than the 2016 election, when so many people who supported Bernie in the primary concluded–despite his eventually supporting her–that Clinton was a shill, or worse, and ended up not voting; voting for Jill Stein; or voting for Trump, as 12% of them did. For instance, I remember some progressives being outraged that Bernie came out for a $15 federal minimum wage where she only advocated $12 figure. I also remember how, at the 2016 Democratic convention, Bernie supporters waived signs saying No TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), as though TPP were the main issue in the election. (How many of them could even explain what the hell TPP was?)
Now, Trump didn’t just win because young people stayed home or because Bernie wasn’t sufficiently full-throated in his support of Hillary: misogyny, Jim Comey, and Hillary’s own shortcomings as a campaigner played a part. But the election was so close, it’s hard to say what would’ve happened absent such black-and-white thinking (“If you support $12 but not $15, you are an evil centrist corporatist!). Of course, we got Trump and now we have lost the federal right to abortion and are suffering all the other evils that Trump, and Trumpism, have wrought.
Is $15 better than $12? Is a bill without any benefits for fossil fuels better than one with those benefits? On paper, sure. But in the real world, it depends. In hindsight, to say that Hillary was just as bad as Trump–or that she was the lesser of two evils–is a bit like saying that someone wielding a knife is as dangerous as someone in command of a nuclear-powered submarine: it’s utter nonsense. Was Hillary perfect? No. Is the IRA perfect? No. Is anyone or anything perfect? Also no.
I get that the job of activists is to push for more–for better policy and better actions. Where things go off the rails is when they fail to recognize the impact their moral absolutism can have on the morale, the voting patterns, and beliefs of their supporters. If we fail to take the time to understand the nuances of the real world, we will fail to make a difference in the real world. And that, after all, is the only place where change matters–not in tweets or white papers or press releases, but in factories, laws, courtrooms, and state houses.
We simply cannot build a better world based off an understanding of the world that never goes beyond the day’s Hot Take, as I discussed last week. It is only by encouraging deep debate, giving ourselves the time and space to evaluate the issues, and fighting for the best outcome at any given moment, that we can advance whatever cause(s) we care about. Once the IRA is passed into law, the work will just have begun. Crucially, we will be better-positioned than ever before to forestall the worst impacts of the climate crisis. The fight goes on, and we have to celebrate every positive step along the way, while recognizing the harms left to remedy–including stopping more fossil fuel infrastructure.
Lastly, I wish to note that the majority of activists DO understand this. Below is a perfect example of the nuance I’m talking about.