Healing the Heat II: Leveling the Washington Roller Coaster
Hallelujah! The Senate just passed the first comprehensive climate change bill in U.S. history, restored our leadership on the global stage, and paid for it all while reducing the federal deficit. In Bill McKibben’s words, the legislation “. . . clearly transforms not just the energy landscape but the political landscape.” It has been one helluva ride.
The Inflation Reduction Act roller coaster pushed my July blog into August because, well, it relentlessly resisted completion in July. That is to say: I started writing it, then the next day it was out of date; I revised, then two days later it was irrelevant. On July 31 we were still strapped into the carnival ride. It had finally left the mountains of West Virginia and was attempting to climb the red rim of the Grand Canyon. It rose to the challenge, and then on August 8 crept up the steep Capitol dome until it met Kamala Harris’s deciding vote and Freedom.
The massive, first-ever, $369 billion climate legislation is expected to pass the House by August 12 and head to President Biden’s desk for his enthusiastic signature. It includes incentives and investments in solar, wind, electric vehicles, and individual Americans, bringing us most of the way to meeting our commitments to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 relative to 2005 levels. Packaged with game-changing health care and tax revision elements to keep it cost-neutral, the bill has never had any Republican support whatsoever, so each and every Democratic vote had to be secured for the filibuster-proof reconciliation process.
The bill represents multiple scale-downs from the original Build Back Better proposal, mostly aimed at convincing Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to back it. Democrats had pretty much given up on July 15, when Manchin pulled out of the latest deal, enjoying his months of playfully teasing the congress, the American people — a majority of whom want climate action now — and endless future generations on Earth. But somehow Chuck Schumer, bless his heart, persisted with Manchin, and the roller coaster topped out on July 27 as Joe once again changed his mind. He was on board. After a few concessions to Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the train sped through the parliamentarian’s office to once again bog down in the 24-hour-plus marathon known as the vote-a-rama. It somehow stayed on the tracks despite Republican attempts to tip it. All as the train fast approached everyone’s home state for recess (please don’t overthink the logic of this analogy).
For me, who dislikes roller coasters both literal and metaphorical, the activism I write about in this blog is suffering from whiplash. Now that this thrill ride is almost over, I’ve been thinking about something more serene, something I can do which will help flatten the tracks and ease the motion sickness of these wild legislative loop-the-loops. I’ve settled on the midterm elections in November, which presents a chance to put as many climate-active lawmakers as possible in Washington. It is indeed possible that the next two years of government could move us toward decarbonization with fewer nausea-inducing highs and lows.
Ignoring climate change is impossible right now, and deferring action is just dumb. The news begins every day with the latest record-breaking heatwave, devastating flood, scorching wildfire, or crop-crushing drought as the hot monster we made roams the Earth with impunity. Slaying the beast should be a priority for every politician. (For a great summary of here-and-now climate change, read “Summer of Disasters” by David Wallace-Wells in the New York Times).
It’s a months-long process, but critical primaries are happening as we speak, and the Congressional recess is less a vacation than a campaign tour for the midterm elections. The stunning number of voters that came out for the Kansas primaries, enraged by the possibility of removing protections for reproductive rights, tell us that this fall we just might hang onto the Democratic majority in the House, defying the current common wisdom, and could possibly gain a more solid majority in the Senate — if we work at it.
I’ve started working. The first step is to recruit an army of midterm activists, an aspect of “Grassroots Power Building” (GPB) in Sierra Club parlance. I’m part of a GPB team in Pennsylvania, and on August 3 we Zoomed a motivational tour-de-force for potential volunteers. Members of the team and the club’s legislative expert talked about the issues at hand, the lobbying, phone-banking, and letter-writing we’ve done, and how much fun and satisfaction the attendees could have if they joined us. It was a success!
I’ll admit I was disappointed in the turnout, since only a few people showed up of the twenty that had registered, but I’m learning that this is the physics of the non-profit and volunteer universe. People are busy with work and family, but we all have a niche we can fill on our own schedule. One of the handful that could make that time slot might turn out to be an ardent future leader, and many more might watch the recording at a later date. To aid the process, I wrote an article for the Pennsylvania chapter’s newsletter promoting the team and providing a link to access the broadcast. By getting the vote out and electing Senators who understand the urgency of climate action, people like Joe Manchin will no longer wield such unilateral power.
I live in a state where election action can make a real difference. Pennsylvania, like Wisconsin, North Carolina, and maybe even Florida, has a real opportunity to flip a senate seat, in our case replacing the retiring Republican Pat Toomey with current Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. Fetterman’s adversary is celeb doctor Mehmet Oz, which brings an advantage of notoriety and money, but luckily Fetterman has government experience and his own unmistakable star quality, featuring his trademark tattoos and hoodie — and he’s really from Pennsylvania (Oz moved here from New Jersey in late 2020). I wmust also mention our gubernatorial election, since the New York Times stated “Nowhere else is a governor’s race so pivotal.” It pits a competent public servant who believes in science and democracy (Attorney General Josh Shapiro) against a Trumpy nutjob who joined the insurrectionists on January 6, wants to deny abortion even after rape or incest, and called climate change a “ridiculous theory based on pop science” (State Senator Doug Mastriano). At the moment Fetterman and Shapiro have strong leads in the polls (a poll from Fox “News”, at that).
With less than 100 days to the election, the Keystone State and a few others provide our best hope of slightly leveling the legislative roller coaster in the Senate. Grass roots power builders need to hit the pavement in Wisconsin and North Carolina, where senators could well flip blue, with possibilities in Florida and Ohio as well. Campaign activism is also critical in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and New Hampshire, home of the most vulnerable Democratic senators whom we have to ensure stay put. Our work is cut out for us.
Making laws is always a bumpy ride, fraught with arduous ascents and gut-turning 100-mph plunges. But as we finally pass the game-changing Inflation Reduction Act (knock on wood), we really can smooth the terrain for the super-critical years to 2024, 2030, and beyond by cementing solid climate-aware majorities in congress. The GOP has become quite adept at playing the long game—witness SCOTUS—but unlike the MAGA crowd we have the majority of Americans on our side. As long as the U.S. remains a democracy (pound on wood), we just need to build power and make that majority scream for the climate—whether they’re plummeting down a track in The Washington Amusement Park or not.