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In Compromise, the Climate Left May Be Vindicated

Smith wasn’t at all alone in faulting activists for pushing too hard. “Justice or Overreach?” a report by Zack Colman in Politico, documented fears that social-justice concerns among environmentalists may have doomed prospects for progress. In March in an essay, “Climate Politics for the Real World,” Matt Yglesias wrote about, as he put it, “what the Sunrise Movement and its boosters get wrong” — namely that major progress could be achieved through a grass-roots mobilization of the public rather than from-above, inside-baseball pressure on Democratic elites.

But as the political scientist Matto Mildenberger has pointed out, the legislation hadn’t failed at the ballot box; it had stalled on Manchin’s desk. He also pointed to research showing climate is driving the voting behavior of Democrats much more than it is driving Republicans into opposition and that most polling shows high levels of baseline concern about warming and climate policy all across the country. (It is perhaps notable that as the Democrats were hashing out a series of possible compromises, there wasn’t much noise about any of them from Republicans, who appeared to prefer to make hay about inflation, pandemic policy and critical race theory.)

The rhetorical criticism was strange as well, especially as an indictment of the seeming failure of Biden’s climate ambitions. It is hard not to talk about warming without evoking any fear, but the president was famous, on the campaign trail and in office, for saying, “When I think ‘climate change,’ I think ‘jobs.’” He did not say, “When I think ‘climate change,’ I think ‘wildfires and floods and droughts.’” He didn’t say he thought about food security or about those drowning in basement apartments in New York City during storms or about climate justice. He didn’t say he thought about the brutal impact of warming on the lives and livelihoods of those in the Global South or how much guilt the average American should feel for the effects of our lifestyles on the world’s poorest. He didn’t mention “degrowth.” He didn’t refer to the end of the world. He kept that kind of rhetoric about as far from his lips as anyone talking about climate possibly could have. He focused on green growth and the opportunities and benefits of a rapid transition.

And while that might not itself have been all that surprising, the climate left didn’t take it as a reason to put up a fight. In the primaries, Sunrise gave Biden an F for his climate plan, but after he sewed up the nomination, its co-founder Varshini Prakash joined his policy task force to help write his climate plan. As the plan evolved and shrank over time, there were squeaks and complaints here and there but nothing like a concerted, oppositional movement to punish the White House for its accommodating approach to political realities.

And even when activists did shout, the White House didn’t bend over backward to accommodate them. The administration got behind the 45Q tax credit for carbon sequestration. It pushed for nuclear funding. It considered allowing new pipelines in exchange for Manchin’s yes vote on the last bill — and seemed willing to include new oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico in exchange for his support on this one. In fact, its current 725-page text includes a rule that the government can auction new offshore wind leases only if, within the past year, it also auctioned new oil and gas permits, an all-of-the-above approach clearly out of line with the International Energy Agency’s recommendation that no new investments in fossil-fuel infrastructure can be made if the world is to hold to the possibility of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels.

From a hard-line climate perspective, many of these concessions are imperfect or even counterproductive. But over the past 18 months, since the inauguration, whenever activists chose to protest, they were almost always protesting not the inadequacy of proposed legislation but the worrying possibility of no legislation at all. When they showed up at Manchin’s yacht, they were there to tell him not that they didn’t want his support but that they needed him to act. They didn’t urge Biden to throw the baby out with the bathwater; they were urging him not to.

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