Congress Finally Did Something Great for Climate Change: The IRA

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A few months ago, my husband and I decided, fuck it, we’re getting solar panels put on our house. At the time, there was a 26% federal tax rebate that was due to drop next year and disappear after that, so even though we don’t love the extra hit to our budget, we figured it was better to do it now. I recently mentioned this to a family member who was considering getting solar and he pointed out that now the rebate will be 30% thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act. I had just spent four days in the wilderness with no access to the internet so I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. So I Googled it, and learned that holy shit the Democrats DID something. And not just something, but something incredibly ambitious and good and I honestly did not know how to process this feeling that I literally have not felt since 2015 when the Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage. Have I EVER felt this feeling in relation to Congress? Especially the Senate? I really don’t remember, I’m sorry, all I remember is the past six months of Democrats claiming they couldn’t possibly have ever protected our right to healthcare in the face of Roe v Wade being overturned.

But no, the Inflation Reduction Act is seriously incredible and because I usually talk about kind of depressing stuff on this channel, I wanted to highlight some GOOD NEWS that you should be VERY excited about, even if you aren’t an American.

The reason I was so caught off guard regarding this bill passing is because I (and pretty much everyone else) assumed that Joe Manchin had effectively murdered Congress’s attempt to pass a bill controlling global warming. To catch you up, the “Build Back Better Act ” was a 2-3 trillion dollar bill that would have made a drastic impact on the United States’ carbon output, upgrading our clean energy standards in places like the automobile industry, investing a huge amount of money in new projects, infrastructure upgrades, and green industries, and enacting environmental justice measures to bring together unions and front-line communities that were hardest hit by fossil fuel damage. If you want to know more about those issues, check out this piece David Roberts wrote for Vox back in 2020, where he goes into detail on how environmental groups have been working with legislators at every level to get these policies on the table.

Climate activists expected that this ambitious bill wouldn’t make it through Congress unscathed, but there was some optimism considering that Democrats held half of the seats in the Senate, plus the tie-breaking vote in the form of the Vice President. Unfortunately, while 50 Senators ran on the Democratic ticket, two of them are actually conservatives: Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. So in order to get their vote, a lot of the bill would need to be tweaked to be, well, worse for the humans who voted for them and better for the corporations that bought them.

Congress was ready to pass the neutered bill, but then in February of this year Joe Manchin flounced away, saying that even his compromise was “dead.” Without his vote, it was indeed, and liberal and progressives across the country cursed Manchin’s name, vowed to vote the secret Republican out in 2024, and that’s the last I thought of all this until a few weeks ago.

For reasons that remain murky, but possibly related to the aforementioned promise to vote him out of office, Manchin had a change of heart. Over the past few months, Chuck Schumer has been working secretly with Manchin to surprise the world with a revamped Build Back Better, titled the Inflation Reduction Act. And despite the fact that Manchin had a hand in it, and despite the fact that it’s not perfect, the bill is INCREDIBLE. In fact, it’s the largest climate change bill ever passed in the United States, and as written it will surely get us to an ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2030 (relative to 2005), and independent evaluators suggest that it could even do better than that. There are certain factors you can’t really figure into models, like what new projects might spring up to be funded. And passing such a landmark bill also might make it more likely for similar bills to add on to it later, maybe to tack on some of the things that got dropped from the original bill. AND, this bill is going to have such a direct, positive impact on so many Americans that there’s a chance it may even win over new constituents who want to see more of this kind of action.

Here’s just a brief overview of some of the things in this bill that I’m really excited about: personally, yep, I love the solar rebate program, which is now 30% for systems installed now through 2032. Installing the panels, plus a battery, plus upgrading our midcentury home’s electrical system has been very expensive, and there’s simply no way we could have afforded it without the rebate and a ridiculously good solar-specific loan program that offers help with securing the rebate AND only 3% interest. And the new bill now includes rebates on some of those upgrades to our electrical that we had to do. It’s such a great deal that now there’s a chance we can move on to our next big home improvement project: replacing our old gas furnace with a heat pump. Oh and what’s this? The new bill also includes rebates of up to $8,000 for heat pumps! Sweet.

Homeowners can also get rebates for retrofits that increase their energy efficiency, like installing insulation.

It’s not just personal benefits for me, though: the bill includes tax credits that will keep nuclear plants operational, which has been controversial in the past as some activists don’t understand the huge benefit they offer in getting free of fossil fuels; there are tax credits for businesses to manufacture clean energy technology here in the US; there’s 20 billion dollars for “green banks,” which are purpose-driven institutions that invest in clean energy solutions with the goal of fighting climate change while making, though not necessarily maximizing, profits; there’s a fund just for switching the post office over to zero-emissions trucks; there’s more money for Superfund, to clean up areas where corporations have damaged the environment; there are new incentives and caps on methane emissions; and, to get back to things that affect me personally, there’s $5 billion for forest management and to reduce wildfire risk.

The bill isn’t perfect, and you’ll hear a lot of people nitpicking it. They’re not wrong: compared to the previous bill, we’re missing a good deal of environmental justice stuff, we lost the eBike rebate, and Manchin made the electric car rebates almost useless by insisting they only apply to a handful of cars that have been mostly made of materials within North America. The ickiest part of the bill is where Manchin insisted on land lease concessions for the fossil fuel industry. But over all, it more than makes up for those problems. 

Complaining about this stuff is important, because we can’t rest on our laurels after getting this legendary bill passed. We have to use it to push for more and more: clearly the things that moderates have been telling us are “extreme” or that we can never have without Republicans buying in are absolutely within our reach. 50% carbon reduction is within reach. Zero carbon is within reach. Abortion rights are within reach. Yeah, sorry, I just have to throw that in again. If our politicians want to get it done, they can get it done.

So while it’s important to continue to push for more, I also think it’s important to pause for a minute and just…be happy? Like, it was almost exactly one year ago today that the IPCC report came out and made me climb into bed mid-video recording. Even though I didn’t want you guys to think things were hopeless, it definitely FELT hopeless, even to me at the time. How can we possibly take such drastic action with time running out and our politicians not seeming to care? Well, it doesn’t feel hopeless anymore. Climate activists and scientists have been working tirelessly to pressure our representatives into doing something HUGE and incredible and inspiring. 

A few months ago I mentioned that I read the book Ministry for the Future, which is a super inspiring book about the kinds of actions the world could take to turn things around for climate change, and this bill includes several of the things he discusses. I highly recommend reading it, especially if you learn best through narratives. But seeing our actual representatives, in the real world, doing some of the things I just read about in this inspiring and utopian novel, is so outrageously cool. I can’t overstate how much this bill’s passage has filled me with joy.

And I’m going to end by saying the same thing I would say if things had gone badly: please let your representative know what you think. If they’re a Democrat, let them know that you love that they took this decisive action. If they’re a Republican (all of whom voted against the bill, naturally), tell them you’re voting them out the first chance you get. If they’re Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema, tell them “thanks but also we’re replacing you with a progressive in the next election.”

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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