This is the second in a two-part series on the implications of the historic climate and health spending package, which President Biden signed into law earlier this week. Read the first post here.
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) will subsidize our nation's clean energy revolution and have a positive impact on climate-driven economics, as noted in Part I of this series. That said, the IRA isn't flawless. Notably, it includes several subsidies for fossil fuels, which will be counterproductive as our nation works toward its climate goals.
Worse still, not all "carrots" for clean energy technologies are good, and the IRA includes a potentially bad one. Specifically, the IRA risks subsidizing the clean energy transition through perpetuating environmental injustice in how we obtain and use energy to fuel our economy.
It is well known that the fossil fuel industry was built in part by concentrating the costs of its polluting activities on so-called "sacrifice zones" — that is, structurally marginalized communities that lacked the economic or political clout to fight back. (See, for reference, "Cancer Alley" in Louisiana.) Even as the IRA aims to steer the industry toward an orderly decline, it would do nothing to prevent it from continuing to concentrate harms in marginalized communities as it does so.
At the same time, the IRA offers little assurance that, as carbon-free energy sources ramp up, any resulting environmental harms will not also be concentrated on structurally marginalized communities. At the very least, climate justice demands that we not seek to subsidize the transition to renewable energy by forcing low-wealth people and communities of color to bear a disproportionately large amount of the costs of this transition.
In the final analysis, it seems clear the IRA is a "win" in an absolute sense; that is, its climate benefits certainly outweigh its climate costs. But attention to the injustices of how these costs and benefits may ultimately be distributed reveals a much more complicated picture of the law's wisdom.
The Climate Justice Imperative
The IRA is what we have, though. And there's much the environmental community can and should do to ameliorate the inequities of its provisions. As noted in Part I, grants and subsidy programs by their nature have a lot of "play" in their joints, which loosen the connection between what they are intended to do and what they accomplish in reality. Environmentalists can seize these opportunities to ensure that the benefits of the IRA reach marginalized communities while working to defeat the effectiveness of the law's subsidies for fossil fuels.
Second, large environmental advocacy groups should make passing new environmental justice legislation a top priority before this fall's midterm elections. Two of the most important bills in this area are the Environmental Justice for All Act, which would take important steps to address generations of environmental racism, and the Public Health Air Quality Act, which would require the EPA to better monitor toxic air pollutants at the fenceline of polluting facilities.
Where once the future of climate policy looked grim, the IRA now brings much needed hope that we can maintain a habitable planet for future generations. But the law is just a first step. Now, we must translate the optimism and momentum it inspires into further action that will bring us even closer to the ultimate goal of a future of climate justice.