History’s Greatest Obstacle to Climate Progress Has Finally Fallen

Democrats in the Senate passed a bill that would, for the first time ever, use Congress’s power to push the U.S. to decarbonize.

An oil pumpjack is reflected in a mirror as it operates on August 5, 2022, near Ventura, California.
Mario Tama / Getty

Updated at 5:19 p.m. on August 7, 2022

Climate change was born as a modern political issue in the United States Senate. On a hot June day in 1988, a senior NASA scientist warned a Senate committee that global warming, which was previously mooted only as a hypothesis, was not only real but already under way. “It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here,” James Hansen said.

An auspicious start, and an ironic one. Since then, the fight against climate change in the United States and abroad has been defined by one constant: You can’t get the Senate to do anything. For 34 years, the upper chamber’s peculiar failure to act on the issue has shaped nearly every facet of policy and politics. Because the Senate could not pass a comprehensive climate bill, Congress could not; because Congress could not pass a climate bill, climate-concerned presidents had to rely on executive action and the permissiveness of the Supreme Court, and climate activists had to win smaller state and local reforms. This uniquely American reliance on regulatory, state, and local climate policy has never quite worked—the country still lacks a comprehensive plan to decarbonize its electricity sector, for instance, which remains dirtier than Western Europe’s—and it has been too disjointed to help the United States transition away from fossil fuels.

Even the edifice of international climate diplomacy was built with the Senate in mind. In 2015, diplomats wrote the Paris Agreement on Climate Change to be strictly voluntary for rich countries, so that the Senate would not have to ratify it. (In the final moments, the American delegation had to change an errant shall into a should to save it from Senate jurisdiction.) Madeleine Albright once said that America was “the indispensable nation.” But on climate change, the Senate has been the invincible obstacle.

But now, on a broiling August day 34 years after Hansen spoke, that record began to change. After an all-night session that stretched from Saturday evening into Sunday afternoon, Democrats voted along party lines to pass the first comprehensive climate law in American history. The bill will touch every sector of the economy, subsidizing massive new investments in renewable and geothermal energy, as well as nuclear power and carbon capture and removal, and encouraging new clean-energy manufacturing industries to develop in the United States.

It is the first economy-wide emissions-reduction bill adopted by the Senate. At more than $369 billion, its investment in climate change is the largest in the country’s history.

As the bill neared a final vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York declared that it would “endure as one of the defining legislative feats of the 21st century.”

“To the tens of millions of young Americans who have spent years marching, rallying, demanding that Congress act on climate change, this bill is for you,” he said.

The bill will reduce U.S. emissions to about 40 percent below their all-time high, according to several studies from independent analysts. That will get the country about two-thirds of the way to accomplishing President Joe Biden’s goal of cutting emissions 50 percent below their all-time high by 2030, Jesse Jenkins, a Princeton engineering professor and the author of an emissions model, told me. It does this by subsidizing zero-carbon electricity production, encouraging the transition to electric vehicles, and nudging industrial firms to adopt low-carbon manufacturing techniques, and despite a new provision that the government must lease some public lands for oil-and-gas drilling whenever it offers them for renewable construction.

“We have never seen the Senate pass a major climate bill. It felt nearly impossible for decades—it felt nearly impossible for the last month,” Leah Stokes, a political-science professor at UC Santa Barbara, told me.

It is something of a shock that a final bill emerged at all. Democrats spent much of last year negotiating a large spending bill that would accomplish many of their domestic priorities, not only on climate change and taxes but also on child poverty, free community college, and home care for senior citizens. That process fell apart in December when Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, one of the caucus’s two most moderate members, pulled out entirely. Negotiations restarted in the winter over a slimmed-down package, then broke down again a month ago when Manchin declared that he was too concerned about inflation to proceed.

Only a last-minute, Hail Mary negotiating effort from Manchin and Schumer salvaged the package. Manchin only endorsed this bill, rechristened the Inflation Reduction Act, in exchange for Schumer’s promise that Congress will, later this year, revisit rules governing where energy facilities are located. The bill passed today reflects Manchin’s particular concerns for the future of the fossil-fuel industry, and in particular West Virginia’s gas companies.

“The fact that Schumer pulled a rabbit out of a hat here and put together a very good climate package—even with a few warts—is unbelievable,” Stokes said.

After all, the Senate has been failing on climate for Stokes’s entire career—really, for most of her (and my) life. The two highest-profile failures came on bills very much like this one, landmark energy legislation considered early in a Democratic president’s first term. In 1992, President Bill Clinton proposed what became known as the “BTU tax,” a surcharge on energy production that would have reduced American emissions and functioned something like a carbon tax. (But not exactly like a carbon tax: The BTU tax would have levied a fee on nuclear energy, which a carbon tax does not do.) The House of Representatives passed the proposal, but the Senate never took it up. Eighteen years later, President Barack Obama endorsed a sweeping piece of climate legislation that would have created a new artificial market where companies could buy and sell the right to emit carbon. The House passed the measure. The Senate left it to die.

But these were not the Senate’s only climate-related failures, Matto Mildenberger, a political scientist and the author of Carbon Captured, a history of American climate inaction, told me. In 1997, the Senate voted 95–0 to forbid the United States from joining the Kyoto Protocol, the first attempt at an international climate treaty. In 2001, President George W. Bush took office with a new promise to regulate four air pollutants, including carbon dioxide. “Even the Bush transition documents said that they were going to do it,” Mildenberger said. The plan perished in part because of strong opposition from conservative Republican senators.

A few years later, Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman introduced a bill to create a new market for trading carbon emissions—arguably the most aggressive bipartisan climate bill ever proposed in Congress. It went nowhere. Neither did the Lieberman proposal co-written with Senator Mark Warner in 2007.

“What’s different is, it’s more clear to just about everybody that this is a huge problem; this is a huge challenge,” Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who was one of the primary authors of the Obama-era bill, told me. “Two weeks ago, the temperature in London was 105 degrees. The Tour de France, they couldn’t run parts of the race because the pavement was melting. We have wildfires here.

“The other thing that’s different is, we have strong leadership in the White House, and I give them a lot of credit.”

The Inflation Reduction Act will now proceed to the House, where it must receive nearly every Democratic vote in order to pass. It will face two potential obstacles: On the caucus’s right, a set of members, led by Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, has insisted that it cannot accept a bill that does not increase the tax break given for paying state and local taxes; on the left, a set of members may conclude that the bill does not go far enough on climate change. Neither of these groups, however, is likely to present quite the problem that the Senate did: Gottheimer’s once-large set has already been whittled down to a few members, and left-wing House members are likely to follow Senator Bernie Sanders’s lead in criticizing the bill for not going far enough while still voting yes on it.

The bill’s passage in the Senate is the most significant climate news since China announced two years ago that it would aim to achieve net zero by 2060, perhaps even since the adoption of the Paris Agreement five years earlier. The structure of international climate politics is on the verge of changing: For the first time ever, America’s Article I Congress, with its unique power to tax and spend and remake the shape of the economy, is going to push the U.S. economy to decarbonize. Many fights remain for climate advocates, and state and local laws, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, must continue to work at decreasing the country’s emissions. (Indeed, Biden can meet his 2030 target only with continued state, local, and executive action.) But never again will climate action have to rely solely on executive action, and on the sort of administrative kludges that the country has previously depended on.

It’s fitting that the Senate passage of the bill happened within days of Australia’s Parliament passing its own climate bill. Australia and the United States—two Anglophone ex-colonies with sizable extraction industries—have epitomized the world’s struggle to take on climate change. (Australia even passed a carbon tax, then repealed it.) By the end of the year, the richest democracies in the world could all have a legislative climate policy for the first time.

As the final votes went through, the floor erupted into applause. (Most Republicans had already left the room.) Democrats exchanged celebratory hugs and backslaps, and a few senators teared up. “This is a planetary emergency, and this is the first time that the federal government has taken action that is worthy of the moment,” Senator Brian Schatz, the Hawaii Democrat who started an initiative in 2019 to coordinate the party’s climate policy, told me. “Now I can look my kids in the eyes,” he said, choking up, “and say we’re really doing something about climate.”

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