In 1987, Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Global Climate Protection Act, the first-ever bill mandating that the U.S. government address global warming. It failed in the Senate; when some of its language made it into legislation funding the State Department, it mainly asked the executive to “seek” to do something about the warming climate.
Thirty-five years later, President Joe Biden has finally signed the country’s first major climate-focused law: the Inflation Reduction Act. During Tuesday’s signing ceremony, Biden called the bill “the most aggressive action ever, ever ever ever, in confronting the climate crisis,” emphatically breaking down its measures to invest in clean energy, create green jobs, and help Americans shrink their carbon footprints.
Biden wasn’t exaggerating. Just a few weeks ago, it appeared that any chance of passing meaningful climate legislation was gone—not just during this Congress, but possibly for years. The Rhodium Group wrote in a July report that without additional measures, the United States would miss its 2030 goal of reducing emissions to 50 percent below 2005 levels; at best, it might have only cut emissions to 66 percent of 2005 levels.
But then Sens. Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer struck a deal. While the Inflation Reduction Act—which also reduces health care costs and raises taxes on large corporations and some investors—is a sliver of what Biden hoped to accomplish with his Build Back Better bill, it leaves much of his climate wish list intact. Now, Rhodium estimates that the U.S. is on track to achieve most of its 2030 goals and establish sturdy climate infrastructure for years to come. Following Donald Trump’s outright climate denial and the foisted climate goals of Barack Obama, this isn’t just a relief. Biden can now claim the best presidential record on the environment since, well, Richard Nixon. He is almost certainly the most effective climate president since global warming became a mainstream concept in the 1980s.
Biden earns that distinction not only because of the IRA, although its impact cannot be overstated: nearly $370 billion in climate investment, with the potential to generate much more. That bill is actually the third piece of legislation Biden has signed with a major climate impact. Last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law bill was justly criticized by environmental activists for its highway spending, but as I wrote at the time, it directed even more money to climate measures: $300 billion in total for items like transit expansion, bicycling safety, pollution cleanup, and wastewater management. And the CHIPS Act, passed this summer, boosts domestic production of a key technology—semiconductors—required in all forms of renewable power, whether solar panels, wind turbines, or electric cars. As the energy think tank the Rocky Mountain Institute told the Atlantic, the cumulative impact of these three laws will be to triple the federal government’s annual spending on climate and green energy, up to $80 billion a year. That’s not even including the $30 billion in public transit funding from the 2021 COVID stimulus bill.
The executive branch has been no slouch on its own, either. It has made some mistakes, including big concessions to oil and gas, poor wildfire management, and the erection of barriers to solar development. But overall, federal agencies have been making some impressive green strides. The Environmental Protection Agency is once again enforcing fuel-efficiency standards for cars and ambitiously cutting down the use of atmosphere-heating hydrofluorocarbons, found in cooling appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners. More climate change–specific offices have been established within the federal government, while even agencies like the State Department as well as the Treasury have been mandated by the White House to factor climate impacts and risk into their broader acts and plans. On the international level, Biden has pursued international cooperation on binding agreements to curb methane emissions as well as plastic pollution, while recommitting to the Paris Agreement.
None of this is enough; at this point, nothing can be enough. Activists and lawmakers are wise to consider the passage of a major climate bill the starting point in preserving a livable Earth, not the conclusion of the effort. Half of the world’s post-industrial carbon emissions have built up since 1990—the same year the United Nations released its first major climate report. In that time, much progress has been curtailed, from President Bill Clinton’s abandoned energy tax to the ill-fated Kyoto Protocol to curb global emissions to the carbon cap-and-trade bill to Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, blocked by the Supreme Court. Even the Paris Agreement is losing its teeth, as more and more major signatories to the act—including the U.S.—have failed to stay on track with their emissions-reductions goals. Instead of rising to the challenge of climate change, our century has seen fracking booms, industry-funded denialism, Republican obstruction, myriad international conflicts, and intensifying weather disasters.
For decades, lawmakers largely took on the challenge of climate change mostly by offering fig leaves, slipping in minor advances into unrelated legislation and rarely seeking to curtail fossil fuels. President George W. Bush was happy to throw a little cash to solar and wind as long as he could cultivate environmentally ruinous fuels like ethanol and “clean coal.” Obama’s post-recession stimulus package delegated $90 billion to clean energy development, a then-historic investment with lasting effects. Even Donald Trump’s farm bill and COVID stimulus measures had money slotted for conservation and clean energy, though no one, least of all Trump, would call either of them climate bills.
There are fair criticisms that Biden’s climate measures have mostly taken an “all of the above” approach to energy, allowing oil and gas drilling to continue despite its responsibility for the crisis. This has been a constant since the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who signed bills to protect natural landscapes and boost renewable power, yet also deregulated natural gas and air travel standards. But on a close look, the policy balance has shifted: There are still concessions to the all-powerful barrel, but lawmakers under Biden have plowed far more money into solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal, alternate transportation, green spaces, resilience adaptation, research and development, and land use reforms. Plus, once-niche hippie-dippy climate solutions are at the fore. With the IRA, environmental justice has become mainstream policy. Thanks to BIF, a concept like “tree equity” can now be legally—and correctly!—considered infrastructure. Conducted by “Amtrak Joe,” the White House is finally attempting to make up for decades of transit neglect and disrepair.
Considering the obstacles faced—or reinforced—by his predecessors, Biden’s climate efforts have some real bite. It’s been a long and troubled journey from his climate bill in the late ’80s, and for the past year, it looked like Biden’s agenda would end up on the ash heap of history. Instead, he made it.