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Social License

Celebrate the Inflation Reduction Act. Then Double Down on Demonizing Fossil Fuels.

Incentivizing renewables is good—but this bill shows how desperately we need to build support for serious fossil fuel restrictions.

Mickey Strider/Loop Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
A large American flag is displayed on the side of an oil refinery at night.

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) contains multitudes. It is, all at the same time, a political miracle, as the first significant climate policy Congress has ever passed; a massive boon for clean energy that will supercharge renewable development and make more ambitious climate action easier in the years ahead; a big deal for Democrats’ electoral prospects (and all their small-d democratic implications, given the fascist threat posed by the GOP); a betrayal of the frontline environmental justice communities whose defiance did so much to make the IRA’s passage possible; a compromise measure that fails to directly limit carbon pollution and therefore is frighteningly out of step with the actual physics of climate change; and a major giveaway to the very fossil fuel majors that lit our world on fire in the first place.

All of these realities can be simultaneously true. And though I personally cried tears of joy as I held my eighteen-month-old son in my arms to watch the IRA’s passage—because I believe this last-minute buzzer-beater of a climate win greatly brightens the previously grim terrain on which we’ll spend our lives fighting for a livable future—I also think the contradictions of this bitter triumph offer important insights for the work we have ahead of us.

The climate provisions of the IRA include all the most popular parts of the climate agenda: clean energy investments, subsidies for electric vehicles and appliances, funding for research and development. These are the arenas of climate action that over the last several years have been pushed completely into the mainstream of American political thought by activists who created, almost from scratch, a new accepted Democratic wisdom that climate action could be a positive force for their communities. Indeed, it’s possible to trace a clear line from that first sit-in for a Green New Deal—with its drive to reframe the political discourse on climate around the additive potential of a green industrial policy—and the clean energy investments of the IRA.

But all reframings entail a shifting of focus from one set of priorities to another, and when the climate movement’s center of gravity turned to the investment side of the decarbonization equation, it may have been at the expense of efforts to more directly rein in fossil fuels. Will Lawrence, one of the co-founders of the Sunrise Movement, described it to me this way: “What the turn towards the Green New Deal did was allow a wide array of political actors, from the far left to the center, to come to understand climate action as not being synonymous with ‘keep it in the ground.’”

Given the relative power of the interests arrayed for and against different kinds of climate action, it seems likely that winning any significant federal climate policy required this shift from confronting the evils of the fossil fuel industry (as exemplified in the Indigenous-led resistance at Standing Rock) to selling the benefits of a clean energy transition (as articulated so powerfully in the promise of the Green New Deal). Certainly this turn was crucial to building the broad coalition necessary to pass the IRA. But we can also see this strategy reflected in the IRA’s primary failure: That, while focusing on green investment, the package doesn’t do anything to directly scale back fossil fuels, which is what ultimately needs to happen to stop climate change.

Instead of fighting with each other over the IRA’s merits, our task today is to commit ourselves to changing those power dynamics moving forward. Because if this process has proven anything, it’s that we’re never going to get the climate bill we need—one that actually tackles climate pollution—until we break fossil fuel capital’s stranglehold on our political system.

This should not be an impossible task. After all, we’re talking about arguably the most genocidal, corrupt, deceptive industry in the history of humanity. Fossil fuel majors lied to us for decades about the climate crisis they created, knowing they were condemning countless millions to death. They routinely sow cancer and toxic pollution across American communities. They price gouge regular working people and profiteer off our economic distress. These corporations are cartoonishly evil—far worse than other industries the public has turned against, like Big Tobacco—and it is absolutely within our power to revoke their social license to operate, and with it, their political capacity to block real climate solutions.

But it’s going to take a united, all-hands-on-deck effort to do so. With the passage of the IRA, we’ve won the positive investments we need to build a clean energy economy. Now climate organizers (and, perhaps most importantly, climate funders) need to come together and direct the full force of their resources towards showing the public how corrupt, dirty, and dangerous the fossil fuel industry really is.

What does that look like? First, we need to start stigmatizing fossil fuel enablers wherever they exist. Seeds of this work have already been planted in some professions—Law Students for Climate Accountability is working to exert pressure within the legal industry on firms that represent fossil fuel clients; Clean Creatives has made a real mark on the PR industry by naming and shaming the agencies and creative professionals that produce fossil fuel propaganda; and the Fossil Free Research movement is taking this same approach to Big Oil’s influence in academic and research institutions. We need to build the infrastructure necessary to support and strengthen these kinds of organizing efforts in every trade and profession that the fossil fuel industry relies on to maintain its power.

Second, we need to start taking climate liability litigation seriously. As the fight against Big Tobacco proved, court battles can play a critical role in eroding a destructive industry’s social license. Nobody—from progressives to conservatives—likes being lied to, and the climate fraud cases that states and municipalities have begun filing have the potential to drive the narrative of Big Oil’s deception in powerful ways (not to mention uncover further examples of greed and treachery through civil discovery). So far there are around two dozen such cases making their way through the courts; we need to turn that number into two hundred, or better yet, two thousand.

Third, we need to invest in the frontline communities that are taking on the fossil fuel industry in real time, as well as the environmental and climate justice networks that support their organizing. These are the people that the drilling and pipeline provisions that Democrats conceded in order to pass the IRA will hurt the most. And their stories could hold the key to broader efforts to undermine public acceptance of the fossil fuel industry. After all, no one understands the ruthlessness and cruelty of oil and gas companies better than the people who’ve watched these corporations destroy their homes and poison their water and engage in all the other barbarities that folks on the frontlines of extraction and production have been subjected to.

Fourth, we need to bring all the stigmatization efforts described above to bear against the Wall Street financiers behind our fossil fuel opponents. Coalitions like Stop the Money Pipeline have been advancing this work for years; it’s time they got the resources necessary to launch campaigns targeting every bank, pension fund, state treasurer, and insurer that directly or indirectly supports fossil fuel expansion. As Bill McKibben, one of the founders of the fossil fuel divestment movement, put it to me this week by email, “There’s two levers big enough to matter, one marked Politics and the other Money. We’ve pulled the former almost to the floor, and finally gotten some results; now it’s time to tug on the other just as vigorously.”

Finally, we all need to be naming the fossil fuel industry as the cause of this crisis in every single statement we make about climate change. From Big Green orgs on down, we have to get used to repeating that the disasters we’re experiencing are their fault, that they are the reason we’re in this nightmare. We need to name hurricanes and tropical storms and heat waves after fossil fuel majors, not just in sassy Twitter posts, but as a sustained communications strategy. We need to hang the suffering of this climate crisis around the fossil fuel industry’s neck in our every word and deed. And, needless to say, we need to stop treating these companies as legitimate partners—because they’re not, and they never will be (at least not until after we’ve revoked their social license to operate).

The IRA is a historic achievement that was only made possible by a shift in focus by the climate movement from the harms of fossil fuels to the benefits of a clean energy transition. This shift also helps explain the fundamental inadequacies of the legislation. And while I believe the IRA’s clean energy investments will make it significantly easier for us to tackle climate pollution in the future, as long as fossil capital controls our political system, fundamental challenges to its business model won’t be allowed to move forward.

There’s no getting around it, then: if we want to save the world, we need to break the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on power. And while that may look like a David and Goliath matchup, fossil capital has some huge vulnerabilities alongside its raw strength. Together, we absolutely have the resources, the creativity, and the power to take on Goliath and win. So let’s go slay a giant.