What’s Inside A Sudden, Second Chance At A Climate Bill

12:14 minutes

Senator Joe Manchin walking towards the camera as protesters to his left and right make their voices heard. A large sign behind Manchin is partially obscured, but reads "Joe Manchin is Burning Our Future For Profit."
Senator Joe Manchin, confronted by climate activists after leaving his boat on his way to Capitol Hill in 2021. Credit: Rachael Warriner, Shutterstock

Last week, climate activists received a surprise gift from Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin. It turns out they had been in secret negotiations to put out a spending package that might tackle some of the same climate mitigation projects as last year’s failed Build Back Better initiative. 

The $369 billion dollars for climate mitigation in the Inflation Reduction Act covers tax credits for renewable energy, methane leak reduction, and the largest environmental justice investment in history. But will it pass before Congress goes on recess?

Ira talks to University of California-Santa Barbara political scientist Leah Stokes, who helped advise Senate Democrats during the bill’s crafting, about what the bill might do, and some of the politics shaping climate action.

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Segment Guests

Leah Stokes

Leah Stokes is an associate professor of Political Science and the host of the A Matter of Degrees podcast at the University of California-Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll talk about how to engineer infrastructure to weather global warming and a 16-year-old inventor who’s using blockchain technology to help women in developing nations prove their identities. But first, even as more heat waves ripple across the country, congressional Democrats are racing to pass the Inflation Reduction Act before the August recess. And if passed, it would be the biggest pot of money for climate change efforts in US history.

So far, the bill includes nearly $370 billion for a slew of provisions you may recognize from last year’s failed and much bigger Build Back Better bill. Here to help us break down what’s in the bill and help us peer at the politics of climate change mitigation is Dr. Leah Stokes, associate professor of political science at the University of California in Santa Barbara. She helped advise Senate Democrats on the bill. And she hosts the podcast, A Matter of Degrees. Welcome back to the program.

LEAH STOKES: Oh, thank you so much for having me on.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. OK, why is there climate change money in a bill called the Inflation Reduction Act?

LEAH STOKES: That’s a great question, Ira. And it turns out that 41% of inflation is actually driven by fossil fuels directly just think about the price at the pump. People have been paying $4, $5, $6 a gallon to fuel their car. And the good news is that if you have an electric vehicle, it only costs $1 a gallon to fill it up with electricity, of course.

So what this bill is going to do is save Americans money by helping them get access to all these clean energy technologies that reduce their energy bills. One analysis from Rewiring America, one of the groups I work with, suggests that an average American household that adopted the clean energy technologies this bill is going to make more affordable, things like heat pumps, electric vehicles, solar panels, induction stoves, if they adopted those technologies, they could save $1,800 a year on their electricity bills.


LEAH STOKES: And that’s every single year. Yeah, so this really is going to fight inflation when it comes to energy bills for everyday Americans.

IRA FLATOW: You know, until last week, I don’t think most people had any idea this was even in the works. What happened? How did this bill all come together?

LEAH STOKES: Well, nobody had any idea, except for Senator Manchin and Senator Schumer. You know, Senator Manchin walked away from the deal a few weeks ago. It was devastating. A lot of folks spoke up about just how terrible this is. Climate change is not an issue that can wait another decade for when we finally have a majority in both Houses once again. We already waited a decade since the last climate bill.

So it seems that some of that public pressure worked. Senator Manchin went back to the negotiating table. And he came back with Senator Schumer– surprise, a week ago– with a new bill. And as somebody who felt the loss, looked into the abyss of no climate policy at all, this entire Congress, even if it’s not a perfect deal, to me, this is an absolutely huge win for the planet and for Americans.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s look at why you think that. Let’s get into the specifics of the provisions. First of all, we see tax credits and other incentives for people and corporations to use renewable energy, including electric vehicles, more than $100 billion worth. This isn’t new. Are they enough to make a difference, though, in people’s behavior?

LEAH STOKES: Absolutely. These tax credits are the really bedrock policy that has been deploying wind and solar for decades, since 1992 in the case of one tax credit. But every time we pass them, they only last for so long, a couple of years here, a couple of years there. And this bill is actually going to extend those policies for 10 years all in one go. That’s going to create a lot of certainty for the industry, and they’re going to be able to build huge amounts of wind and solar.

And that’s really what we need in order to decarbonize our grid, to clean up our electricity system. President Biden set a goal for 100% clean power by 2035. And this bill will help get us on track to actually meeting that goal.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. There’s also substantial investment in environmental justice communities, communities that have been either marginalized economically or that face a higher pollution burden because of historic discrimination. Can compensating for injustice also reduce emissions? I think that’s part of what they’re trying to talk about.

LEAH STOKES: Absolutely. Communities of color are really on the front lines of the pollution crisis. When we talk about dirty air, it’s overwhelmingly in communities of color. And so that’s why this bill includes $3.5 billion to clean up ports. Ports are often located near communities of color. And they’re really dirty facilities. So that’s going to help a lot.

There’s also $27 billion for something called the Clean Energy Accelerator. It’s basically like a green bank that will lend out money at a really low cost to folks to help them get solar panels, heat pumps, electric vehicles, maybe retrofit a public housing facility, those kinds of things. And that’s going to really help in terms of making sure that we’re cleaning up pollution in every single zip code in this country.

IRA FLATOW: Now there, I’m sure, had to be compromises to get this bill passed. Was money taken out of, let’s say, one particular pot of money that was taken out or that you believe should be bigger than it is?

LEAH STOKES: Of course, I think we have to invest even more money in climate change, you know? $300 and almost 70 billion is huge. It is 4 times the next biggest climate package we have ever passed in Congress. That was the Recovery Act back in 2009. This is a game changer. But the bill that the House passed, Build Back Better, it had $555 billion.

And you’re right. There were some programs that fell out altogether. For example, support for electric bikes. That was something I was excited about. I have an e-bike, and I want a lot of Americans to get one. But a lot of what happened is, actually, that the programs just got smaller so they didn’t sort of kill total provisions, total programs. What they did was just make things a little bit smaller at the margins.

IRA FLATOW: I’ve seen some estimates that this bill would help drive carbon pollution down below even 2005 levels, as much as 40% by 2030. How do you begin to calculate the carbon impact of a bill like this?

LEAH STOKES: Well, the good news is that there are some amazing modeling groups out there, including energy innovation. This is an independent group. They just look at the numbers, and they make an analysis. And what they found is that the bill will cut carbon pollution, just like you said. It will probably get us 40% below those 2005 levels.

And remember, President Biden’s goal is to cut carbon pollution in half, cut it by 50% by 2030. So this bill will get us 80% of the way there. And there are some things in the bill that are not great that Senator Manchin added at the last minute.

But the other thing that energy innovation found in their modeling work was that there is 24 times more good stuff in the bill when it comes to cutting carbon pollution than there is bad stuff. One thing people might not understand is that this bill has over $60 billion to invest in clean energy manufacturing in the United States. That means that we’ll be making everything from solar panels to wind turbines, heat pumps, batteries, electric vehicles. The list goes on. We’ll be making all of those technologies here in the United States.

That isn’t just important in terms of creating good paying and hopefully unionized jobs in the clean energy economy. It’s also important to change the politics because that means next time, when we come back to say, hey, the climate crisis is really important. We need to do this. There will be jobs and employers and people working in the clean energy industries in every district in every state across this country. And that’s going to make it a lot easier for us to finally be able to find some Republican votes for climate legislation.

IRA FLATOW: You mentioned earlier that there were some pieces that were added back to the bill so that Senator Manchin would be able to feel comfortable with it. And one in particular is upsetting activists. And I’m talking about a requirement that the US sell leases for oil and gas drilling on public lands.

LEAH STOKES: Yes, that is a Senator Manchin provision. It’s not something that I would have written, and it doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but it is in the bill and it has to stay in the bill if we want to pass this overwhelmingly positive package. So what does it do? It says that each year, the federal government needs to auction at least 2 million onshore acres and 60 million offshore acres of public lands and waters.

What does that compare to the historic average? Well, in the 10-year period before the pandemic, we auctioned about 5 million onshore and 80 million offshore on average. So this is a bit lower than what we’ve been doing, but it’s still not good news because the fact is, we don’t need any new fossil fuel developments. They make no sense for communities. They make no sense for the planet. And quite frankly, they’re an economic loser because you’re going to have to shut down those projects way before they’re finished operating. So this is not a good provision.

But remember, it’s just an auction. It means that companies could buy leases. In general, only 1% to 3% of lease acres are actually bought. And then those companies have to propose a project. They have to go through an environmental review. It takes a lot of time, energy, money before there’s even a project developed. So the climate movement has got to be there every step of the way to try to stop those projects from being developed because we can’t have any new fossil fuel projects.

IRA FLATOW: All right, one last question, let’s say this bill passes just as it is. No iffy, tricky amendments come up. What’s next for climate politics? What bills would you want? Or what executive actions, as this seems so complete, could the president put forth?

LEAH STOKES: Well, this bill is really a lot of carrots. It’s incentives to build clean energy industries here in America. It’s incentives to help make it cheaper for everyday Americans to get access to clean energy technologies. But apart from that methane fee that we talked about, there aren’t a lot of sticks in this package, things that say, thou shalt do X, you know? It’s really a spending bill. That’s what reconciliation, this arcane process that allows us to only have 50 votes, that’s what that is about. It’s a budget bill.

So what we need next is for President Biden to step up with a broad range of executive actions that accelerate the transition to 100% clean electricity, to cutting carbon pollution in half by 2030. And in many ways, the Biden administration has been holding itself back because they know how important getting this bill across the finish line to President Biden’s desk to be signed, they know how important that is.

But I have a hunch that right on the heels of this bill, we are going to see the Biden administration step up in a big way when it comes to executive actions on climate. And that is exactly what we need to happen, as well as we need states and cities and everyday people to keep moving ahead with everything they can do on the climate crisis, because really, this is an all-hands-on-deck situation.

IRA FLATOW: We’ll have to hold our breath and leave it there. Thanks for joining me, Dr. Stokes.

LEAH STOKES: Oh, thank you so much for having me on.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Leah Stokes, associate professor of political science at the University of California in Santa Barbara. She was an advisor on the Inflation Reduction Act and a host of the podcast– we’ll have to all go listen to that now– A Matter of Degrees. We’re going to take a break. And when we come back, global warming is dangerous for human life and destructive to infrastructure. So how can we engineer our roads, our power grids, and stormwater systems for what’s certainly coming up, the new normal?

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