OOn the campaign trail, then-candidate Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan served as the centerpiece of what he promised would be a robust climate agenda. But despite the proposal’s potentially civilization-saving significance, Biden talked more about an immediate effect on Americans’ daily lives: job creation. “When I think about climate change,” as he often said before and after he was elected president, “I think about jobs.”
The approach had a very clear political logic: the country was in the midst of unprecedented uncertainty with unemployment briefly soaring to nearly 15%. Americans were concerned about their ability to make ends meet. Now, two years later, economic problems remain on the minds of many voters, this time in the form of the most significant inflation in decades. come in Inflation Reduction Act. The bill, negotiated behind the scenes by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, has many of the same plans and goals as Build Back Better — namely, reducing U.S. carbon emissions — but with a new, more timely name , imposed it.
Much has been made about whether the Inflation Reduction Act will actually reduce inflation. (Hint: analysts and economists say it will – even if it will take a few years to start). But beyond the policy implications, it’s worth considering the significant shift in the narrative from “creating jobs” to “stopping inflation.” In rebranding Biden’s most significant climate policy as a deflation bill, Democrats emphasized that “climate is everything.” Political rhetoric is finally catching up with reality.
A version of this story first appeared in Climate is everything newsletter. to sign up Press here.
To find out how Having come this far, it’s helpful to look back in time at two pieces of legislation created at the height of the Great Recession: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES). Acronyms are incredibly fickle, so be patient here. ACES, purely and simply a climate bill, was introduced in 2009 as the country’s opportunity to finally tackle climate change. It would put a cap on carbon emissions and allow companies to buy and sell pollution credits. It was complex and difficult to understand; public support lagged behind. It never became law. ARRA, on the other hand, was not intended to be a climate bill at all. Passed that year, it poured nearly $800 billion in federal dollars into the economy for everything from new highways to broadband Internet. Most importantly, it includes $90 billion in federal funding to promote clean technologies. The lesson for many politicians was clear: spending big to invest in climate-related things is popular and politically feasible, while complex regulatory schemes are not. People’s push for a program like the Green New Deal reinforced this belief.
Biden, who oversaw the distribution of stimulus funds as vice president, came to the White House last year with the intention of using the same approach. He proposed spending several trillion dollars on his Build Back Better plan amid another economic crisis, but that stalled. There are many factors to blame — not the least of which is Manchin’s inconsistency — but it’s worth noting that the jobs narrative may have been less compelling as unemployment fell quickly after Biden took office in office to about 3.6% today.
As Build Back Better stalled, politicians looked around for other burning issues to tie to the bill. Some have suggested the push is framed as a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — reducing dependence on fossil fuels could reduce Russia’s influence. But Manchin probably had a better sense of the political winds.
With voters consistently ranking inflation among their main concerns, repositioning a massive spending bill as an attempt to address the problem made political sense. This is not to say that the link is all rhetoric designed to serve the polls. Analyzes from places like Moody’s show the legislation leading to a modest reduction in inflation over the medium term.
The connections between energy, climate and inflation are myriad and obvious. The economy runs on fossil fuel energy and volatile prices can play a key role in inflation – as we saw with the war in Ukraine. In addition, there are inflationary effects from extreme weather events that disrupt supply chains and raise insurance costs. In my contributions to this newsletter, I often try to draw connections between climate change and the world around us that are not necessarily clear or widely understood. What a surprise that Joe Manchin did it for me this week.
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