'A long time coming': Al Gore, other climate activists celebrate Senate passage of IRA

The Senate’s approval of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) on Sunday marks the first time the body has ever passed any significant measures to address climate change.

The IRA contains $369 billion in spending over 10 years to subsidize the deployment of clean energy and electric vehicles, and it includes other measures to combat climate change, such as a fee on methane leaked in oil and gas drilling. Overall, it is expected to help the U.S. reach a 40% reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming from 2005 levels by 2030.

Although that falls short of President Biden’s goal of cutting those emissions by 50%, it nonetheless thrilled longtime leaders on climate change, who just 10 days earlier were apoplectic when it appeared the Senate would pass no climate change legislation at all.

“It’s been a long time coming, but the Senate has finally advanced transformative climate legislation,” former Vice President Al Gore, who kick-started the climate movement with his 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” tweeted.

Al Gore speaks at a podium during a news conference at the United Nations Climate Change Conference.
Former Vice President Al Gore at a news conference during the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

While many climate activists have harshly criticized Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., for successfully demanding concessions to fossil fuel producers — such as increased oil and gas drilling on federal land — Gore praised him. “Thank you to Senators [Chuck] Schumer and Manchin and to every Senator who fought to ensure that climate action was a priority in this bill,” he tweeted.

While pledging to keep pushing for more action in the future, the Senate’s leading climate hawks rejoiced.

“We did it,” tweeted Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. “We passed the biggest climate bill that any country has ever passed. It is the reason I came to the Senate.”

He also told the New York Times’ Lisa Friedman, “Now I can look my kids in the eye and say we’re really doing something about climate.”

For the last 12 years, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., has given a weekly address on climate change when the Senate is in session. He recently gave his 285th speech on the subject.

“We’ve packed a lot into this historic legislation, and I look forward to spending the coming weeks and months talking with Rhode Islanders about how the bill will lower their energy and health care bills and create millions of jobs,” Whitehouse said in a statement. “I’m also very proud to have shaped the major climate components of the bill, which is expected to double to triple the rate of historical emissions reductions. While there’s still much more to do to lead the planet to safety in the race against climate change, this is by far the biggest step the United States has ever taken to lower emissions. It is good reason for hope.”

In 2009, when he was in the House of Representatives, now-Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., co-authored a bill that would have capped and gradually reduced the carbon emissions that are the leading cause of climate change. The bill, known as Waxman-Markey, passed the House but died in the Senate. Markey has remained a leading legislator on climate change since he moved into the upper chamber.

“Twelve years ago, I watched my landmark climate legislation pass in the House and die in the Senate,” Markey said in a statement on Sunday. “Today, powered by a movement that never once wavered in the struggle for a livable future, I joined my Democratic colleagues in passing a bill that makes historic investments in climate justice and delivers the resources we need to have a fighting chance at a livable planet.

“As I know all too well — doing nothing is a political option, but it’s not a planetary option. The Inflation Reduction Act is far from everything we wanted to achieve, but it’s the start of what we need.”

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez watches from the side as Senator Ed Markey speaks at a podium at a news conference.
Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a news conference to reintroduce the Green New Deal at the U.S. Capitol in April 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Before Waxman-Markey failed, then-President Barack Obama had tried unsuccessfully to help shepherd it through the Senate. On Sunday, Obama celebrated in a pair of tweets that his former vice president accomplished what he couldn’t.

“Thanks to President Biden and Democrats in Congress, people’s bills will get smaller, their lives will get longer, and we’ll have a real shot at avoiding the worst impacts of climate change,” Obama wrote.

Veteran environmental activist Bill McKibben did temper his elation with acknowledgment of the concessions to Manchin. McKibben wrote “The End of Nature,” one of the first popular books about climate change, published in 1989, and he co-founded the climate change advocacy group 350.org in 2007.

“34 years and 40 days ago, Jim Hansen broke the news of global warming to the U.S. Senate,” wrote McKibben in a tweet, referring to the legendary 1988 congressional testimony in which Hansen, then director of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies, stated that the Earth had clearly warmed and that with “99 percent confidence” it was caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. “Finally, today, they act[.] It’s late, it’s deeply compromised, and it’s also a great victory for all who have fought so long and hard.”

Celebrities who have been outspoken activists on climate change also chimed in. Mark Ruffalo may be best known for playing the Hulk in Marvel movies, but he is also a leading activist opposing extracting natural gas and oil through fracking.

“As we are living through record heat, fires, floods, droughts, & climate anxiety, we can take a breath. A solid beginning. It will create meaningful jobs, bring manufacturing back to the USA, & begin to address climate change significantly,” he tweeted.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a multibillionaire, made climate change one of his signature issues as mayor and in his private philanthropy. On Monday he praised the bill and noted it would be a boon to local governments attempting to deal with climate change.

Leading climate scientists also cheered the news while already looking ahead to the possibility of further action in the future. Michael Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, tweeted that the IRA “Puts us on path to meeting our obligation to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030, re-establishing American leadership on climate & paving the way to global climate action.” He followed up in response to critics who fretted that scientists were too celebratory of a bill that won’t, in and of itself, avert catastrophic climate change, to argue that it is a first step.

Katharine Hayhoe, who serves as chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy and a professor at Texas Tech, told Yahoo News that the bill’s passage would have global reverberations.

“This is huge,” Hayhoe said on Monday. “The United States is historically responsible for 25% of global carbon emissions and its influence outside its borders on technology, on policy, is enormous.”

Hayhoe acknowledged that the emission reductions would fall short of the U.S.’s pledges in previous global climate agreements, but said “it’s a step in the right direction.”

“I particularly applaud the inclusive nature of the solutions,” she added. “Of course, there’s clean energy and there’s solar and wind and battery manufacturing, and tax credits, but there’s also funds to support climate-smart regenerative agriculture, to support restoring and conserving forest ecosystems and coastal habitats — and to support low-income communities who bear a disproportionate impact from climate change.”

Michael Bloomberg speaks at a podium during a panel at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Madrid in 2019.
Michael Bloomberg at a panel at the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid in 2019. (Sergio Perez/Reuters)

There were, however, some detractors. Adam McKay, the director of the blockbuster film “Don’t Look Up,” a thinly veiled climate change parable, criticized the bill as “a greatest hits of everything wrong with USA.”

Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, gave the bill a mixed review in a Twitter thread running down its pros and cons.

The same dichotomy could be seen between mainstream environmental advocacy groups, which exulted in the bill’s passage, and some farther-left organizations that are particularly focused on opposing fossil fuel development.

“This is a historic moment for climate action, and a turning point in American climate policy,” said Evergreen Action executive director Jamal Raad. “Today, the Senate passed the largest climate investment in history — by far. This is the end of a decades-long road to pass a climate bill, but it’s only the beginning of the road towards achieving the greenhouse gas pollution reductions that science demands and building a better future for us all.”

Raad went on to acknowledge that painful compromises were made. Greenpeace USA, on the other hand, focused mainly on those concessions.

“The Inflation Reduction Act includes much needed investment in renewable energy, and a down payment on the union jobs we need to propel a green economy,” Greenpeace USA co-executive director Ebony Twilley Martin said. “But it is also a slap in the face to the frontline communities, grassroots groups, and activists that made this legislation possible. The IRA is packed with giveaways to the fossil fuel executives who are destroying our planet.”

While Greenpeace did not join its major counterparts such as the Sierra Club in urging swift passage of the IRA, it did not call for rejecting it either, instead asking Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer “to do everything in his power to kill” a side deal he made to secure Manchin’s support, in which the Senate will later take up separate legislation to streamline the process for obtaining permits for energy development projects.

Still, those views represented a minority opinion. Most people who have been working on climate change for decades seemed to agree with Hayhoe, who said they “should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” and Whitehouse, who told the Times’ Friedman: “It’s a bit of a dream come true.” But, he hastened to add, "Of course, it’s only the first chapter of the dream.”


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