The Climate Movement Wanted More Than the IRA. Now What?

A prominent climate thinker says the Inflation Reduction Act has real benefits, but “that doesn’t erase the costs.”

Rhiana Gunn-Wright is the director of climate policy for the Roosevelt Institute
The Atlantic / Getty

Since President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law in August, the first major climate legislation in U.S. history has been smothered with praise: Journalists and climate experts have suggested that the IRA will “save civilization” and herald “an unstoppable transition.” Rather than punishing companies for their emissions, the law creates numerous financial incentives to encourage the growth of green industries and subsidize eco-friendly consumer purchases such as heat pumps and electric vehicles.

The roughly $370 billion that the IRA allocates to addressing climate change is making the country’s climate future look far rosier than at any other point in recent memory. The law is projected to get the U.S. two-thirds of the way to its emissions goals by the end of the decade, and we may already be seeing its earliest effects: In late August, Honda announced that it would build an EV-battery factory in Ohio, while the solar-panel manufacturer First Solar said it would build a new factory in the southeastern U.S.

But not everyone who cares about climate change is happy with the IRA. Some climate activists on the left don’t think the law goes far enough, especially compared with the Green New Deal that they have championed for several years. Nestled within the IRA are several provisions that critics say will benefit the fossil-fuel industry at the expense of people living near oil and gas plants, who are disproportionately poor and nonwhite. For example, they point to the law’s reinstatement of oil and gas leases, as well as incentives for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)—technology that prevents emissions from industrial processes from entering the atmosphere, which could extend the life of gas- and coal-fired power plants. A coalition of climate groups even refused to support the legislation. “The IRA keeps in place a practice of these communities being bargaining chips,” Rhiana Gunn-Wright, the director of climate policy at the Roosevelt Institute, told me.

Gunn-Wright, a prominent voice in the climate movement who was one of the architects of the Green New Deal, has been critical of the law, even while recognizing the climate investments it makes. I spoke with her last week to better understand where she thinks the IRA went wrong, and what that means for the future.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Matteo Wong: What are your top-line takeaways of the Inflation Reduction Act?

Rhiana Gunn-Wright: The IRA is such a mix that even a month after it passed I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of its implications. The bill does have a lot of landmark investments in the deployment and development of renewable energy, and there are some really good and useful investments in environmental justice. The other thing I’m struck by is the fact that the bill means that the U.S. is essentially acceding to the thinking that industrial policy is the way to tackle decarbonization. And that was a really big part of the Green New Deal.

But at the same time, my other big takeaway is that all of this progress will only come at the expense of Black, brown, and Indigenous people. We are still at a place where our political system, our energy system, and our economic system rely so deeply on white supremacy that a deal was not able to be struck until communities of color were sacrificed, even after the summer of racial reckoning in 2020.

Wong: What marginalized communities does the law hurt, and how is their future worse than one without the IRA?

Gunn-Wright: There is the Gulf South, where, because of the IRA, the Interior Department just allowed the sale of about 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for fossil-fuel development. That is a region that is very hard-hit both by fossil-fuel infrastructure and by petrochemical infrastructure. That’s actually where my grandmother is from—it’s a community that, between extreme weather events, cancer alley, and all these fossil-fuel infrastructures, is continually hurt by decisions where people have their livelihoods and health sacrificed.

Communities all over the country who live near fossil-fuel facilities and power plants are poised to suffer. And I say that because, with the new funding for CCS, there are plans to put CCS on more coal-fired and gas-powered plants. So we could see a real perpetuation of the use of that infrastructure, which means ongoing pollution in those communities. And in a different bill, where that wasn’t funded as heavily or was excluded, you would probably see more pressure to close down those facilities.

Wong: In the past, climate advocates have talked about “sacrifice zones”: how, for economic or fossil-fuel development, there are communities that are sacrificed, which are often Black, brown, Indigenous, and poor communities. Now that dynamic seems inverted in that the communities hurt by CCS constitute sacrifice zones that in theory will help the climate.

Gunn-Wright: Climate change is one of the biggest problems we face. Even with the IRA, we’re going to have to build at a pace that we haven’t built at in decades. We’re going to have to do things we have never done before. Yet it seems that we cannot figure out how to solve problems without relying on white supremacy. How are there still sacrifice zones for both something that is harmful and something that is not harmful? Something about that calculus is upsetting to me, because the aims can be vastly different, but the people who have to pay the costs are the same.

Wong: The IRA allocates as much as $60 billion toward environmental justice, and, as you mentioned, various programs are going to benefit disadvantaged communities. In theory, a working-class, Black, or otherwise marginalized person or community that isn’t located in the specific areas we’ve talked about stands to gain from the law. Given that, how do you explain the IRA as locking in environmental racism, which is something that you tweeted?

Gunn-Wright: I want to acknowledge that the IRA does include some benefits for communities of color. One of the provisions in the IRA is about manufacturing cleanup and toxic-site cleanup. A family member of someone I know who lived near one of these sites passed away. And that could be really beneficial to her family. But I still struggle to square it when someone in the Gulf might be getting cancer, or another kid is getting asthma in Brooklyn. A lot of communities of color are deeply intergenerational, and just because something doesn’t hurt you doesn’t mean that it won’t hurt someone in your family whose bills you help pay. I don’t know how you do that calculus, but I want to be honest and acknowledge that there definitely will be some benefits. But that doesn’t erase the costs.

And the IRA keeps in place a practice of these communities being bargaining chips. If the cost of our life is not taken as fully as a ton of carbon—both things matter, but it often seems like one maybe sometimes matters a bit less—that’s dangerous. I don’t live in a frontline community or near a polluting facility (that I know of) anymore. But who’s to say that my community, which is becoming more and more Black by the day, won’t be next on the chopping block?

Wong: Three independent analyses have said the IRA is going to get the U.S. two-thirds of the way to our emissions goals by 2030, as set under the Paris agreement. How do you weigh those pretty significant climate gains against the sacrifices you’ve talked about?

Gunn-Wright: It’s a complicated tension. I’m not the one who is living next to a coal-fired power plant that someone’s going to try to figure out how to put CCS on. The math really changes when it’s your kid or your house. What I will say about it is that those emissions reductions are really important, especially in terms of our responsibilities to other nations, especially developing nations. There are front lines everywhere, and there are developing nations who are on the front lines. But sometimes it feels like pitting people of color against one another, where it’s either those people of color suffer or people of color on our border suffer, when there are actually lots of other ways to balance this equation. There is give-and-take necessary, but why is it always people of color who end up paying the cost?

Also, emissions are not the same as pollution. You can reduce emissions and exacerbate local pollution. And as important as it is to look at the aggregate, you also have to look at the margins, and the aggregate and the average don’t always capture that.

Wong: A lot of the IRA takes place through the federal tax code, but there are certainly elements left to states, like some energy-efficiency rebates. And a lot of Republican-controlled state governments may pose obstacles to this bill. What concerns do you have about implementation, and what are you hopeful about?

Gunn-Wright: Implementation is going to be huge and complex. We could end up with a clean-energy build-out that confers a lot of advantages to wealthier white people and then leaves people of color behind. When it comes to folks thinking about environmental justice and protecting frontline communities, those are often going to be groups that have multiple priorities and not a ton of staff pushing against lobbyists who can focus very narrowly on one or two provisions in the law. It’s going to be difficult for there to be enough presence and pressure everywhere to ensure that the rules governing programs bend in favor of everyday people. I also think the difficulty in implementation is that agencies are often, from no fault of their own, understaffed, and there is a gap where communities who might need these programs to work for them are not at the same table as the agency folks who are running these programs.

One of the problems with the IRA’s focus on tax credits is that right now there’s very little oversight. Opportunity Zones are an example of something that ended up not being used to benefit communities, but instead helping to build parking garages and sports complexes, in large part because of the lack of oversight and accountability. That same thing can happen with clean-energy tax credits.

Wong: Given that a lot of experts, including yourself, have said that we need to drastically reduce our emissions in the next 10 years, what was the realistic alternative to the Inflation Reduction Act? How else could we have “balanced the equation” with a similar or better result, given a split Senate with Joe Manchin, who owns a coal business, as the decisive vote?

Gunn-Wright: I struggle with this question because I often struggle with the question of what’s realistic. I’m a Black woman in America. Asking me what’s “realistic” often feels like asking me, “What is your desired flavor of oppression?” It’s hard for me to come up with something that definitely could have gotten past the Senate, because the things I would like to see aren’t always politically palatable. We did have a somewhat better option, which was Build Back Better. And that died, largely because of Senator Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Because we have a split Senate, maybe this was the best that we could get. But that still doesn’t mean that it was enough or that we should not keep pushing against the bounds of what’s realistic.

Wong: The IRA is not the bill that the climate movement wanted. In some ways, the law’s focus on carrots versus sticks—that is, giving incentives to companies instead of penalizing emissions—and manufacturing is more similar to the labor movement’s ideal climate bill. Do you think the movement needs to retool itself, and how?

Gunn-Wright: I would push back on that. If anything, the IRA shows the influence of the climate movement. The IRA is essentially a very pared-back Build Back Better. And there were a lot of things in BBB, like paid leave, health care, etc. And one of the only things that made it forward was climate, which happened because of the climate movement. And the reason there are more investments in U.S. industrial policy is in large part because of the Green New Deal and the climate movement arguing for industrial policy as an approach to decarbonization, as opposed to a carbon tax. And frankly, the climate movement and the labor movement might not always see eye to eye, but the rights of workers have been important to a lot of people in the climate movement and were a very important part of the Green New Deal, too.

If any retooling needs to happen, I think the IRA has created divisions in terms of environmental justice and feelings around whether the movement can continue to unify when a lot of people came out of the IRA feeling like environmental justice had to take a back seat to pass the Senate. For example, the IRA happened before strong implementation or guidance for Justice40, part of a Biden-administration executive action that creates an initiative committing 40 percent of the benefits of clean-energy and climate funding to disadvantaged communities. Even though the IRA has $60 billion of environmental-justice investments, that’s not 40 percent. It’s more like 16 percent. For the transition to be as just as possible, it’s really important for these funds to be subject to Justice40.

Wong: For years the climate movement has focused on getting federal climate legislation passed. Now we have the IRA, and another big climate law doesn’t seem realistic in the short term. Where do activists go from here?

Gunn-Wright: Everyone’s going to be focused on implementation. Like we talked about, there are a lot of things to still be decided. So I think that’s the next frontier. There will be contestation around fossil-fuel leasing and projects; that’s not going to let up even now that the IRA has passed. You’re also probably going to see some fights around regulations for CCS and hydrogen and other technologies that advocates consider harmful investments.

One of the big fears that I’ve heard from folks who work directly with environmental-justice communities is that now that the IRA has passed, there’ll be a lot less energy around climate, and it’s a lot less likely that any other major climate legislation will pass. And so they’re very afraid that a lot of the problems that are in the IRA just won’t get addressed. But I hope that as more folks realize the IRA could really shortchange people and communities of color, more groups will become interested and committed to implementation.