Image by Ivy Sanders Schneider

“The Responsibility to Construct the World as It Should Be”

Daniel Sherrell

The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has provided the climate movement with a painfully precise measure of its own power: enough to bring a new industry into being, not yet enough to bring an old one to heel. 

On the one hand, the bill’s billions in renewable energy investments could drive an explosion of clean energy advancement and deployment across the 2020s. The 2010s — a decade during which the price of solar dropped by 90 percent, the price of wind, 70 percent — may look in retrospect like a slow on-ramp. On the other hand, the bill does little to actively draw down fossil fuels — or to discipline the industry that profits off them at our collective expense. In the medium to long-run, a renewable energy renaissance impelled by the IRA will likely diminish demand for fossil fuels and steadily shrink their market share. But with only a handful of decades left to decarbonize the global economy, a transition that fails to directly check the power of the fossil fuel industry will definitionally proceed too slowly. Absent further regulation, an all-of-the-above energy strategy will remain profitable long past the planetary tipping point. Private capital will continue feeding at that trough until the climate movement renders it impossible. 

The IRA contains historic victories that the movement should celebrate and own. They represent the culmination of decades of hard, emotionally freighted work on the part of millions of brave people. But we must also recognize that our lodestar remains out of reach. We have not wrested the helm of our democracy from the fossil fuel industry, nor have we secured a world where our economy renews rather than degrades the planet on which it depends. 

The coming years will require a redoubled effort to make any association with the fossil fuel industry politically toxic for left and center-left parties across the globe. Senator Joe Manchin should be held up not as a hero of compromise but as a paragon of corruption, a man who — without even pretending to advance any science-based justifications — overrode the American people to torpedo key parts of the climate bill on behalf of his friends and donors in the fossil fuel industry. Any politician who takes money from that industry, any bank that finances it, any law firm that represents it, any ad firm that abets its greenwashing, any geology department that proffers it its graduates, any legislature that approves its construction plans, any institution still corrupted by its money or its propaganda should be branded with the same deserved infamy until it changes course. 

Meanwhile, the climate movement should continue channeling its fiercest adversarial instincts into fighting pipelines, power plants, and refineries, following the lead of the mostly poor communities whose lungs, lifespans, and livelihoods have for decades served as another raw material for industry, burnt alongside the coal, oil, and gas. This isn’t just about making new construction a financial risk and a logistical headache. At question is whether the climate-anxious middle-class whites who make up one swath of the movement will continue fighting with equal tenacity past the point where their own futures and families are secured until the safety of the rest of the coalition — including indigenous, black, and poor white communities, as well as climate refugees, immigrants, and union workers — is ensured. The moral hazard isn’t hard to imagine: as the projected warming curve bends downward, those who no longer feel themselves directly at risk may be tempted to abandon those who still are. For the movement to grow its power, it will need to deepen its solidarity. 

This is not some abstract ideal; with every solar array we build we are — to borrow the Bernie koan — “fighting for someone we don’t know.” The causal chain is long and probabilistic, which is all the more reason the climate movement can’t allow its moral imagination to waver: every ton of carbon abated means less suffering and greater stability for real people, whether they live in Far Rockaway or Islamabad.

But even as we continue to block, delay, and defund on the fossil fuels side, the climate movement will need to forge a new and, at times, politically uncomfortable ethic on the renewables side. In the coming years, we will need to get firmly behind building things. Lots of things: electric cars, E.V. charging stations, transmission lines, solar fields, heat pumps, geothermal wells, offshore wind platforms, high speed rail lines, the list goes on. And not just building them, but building them quickly, with union labor, and permitting processes that are genuinely participatory without being hopelessly protracted. In other words, the time has passed when our only job was to critique the world as it was. As the IRA starts pumping billions of dollars into the clean energy industry, we need to accept the responsibility to literally construct the world as it should be —  a far more complicated task. 

There will be times, of course, when building a solar array requires compromising a fragile wetland, or practicing eminent domain, or overruling the preferences of local community members. Each of these trade-offs will need to be weighed, and the ethical decision won’t always be obvious. But to deny that there is a trade-off at all — to not consider the faraway lives that depend on a rapid build-out of renewables — is to refuse the difficult mantle of moral leadership in favor of the easy posture of powerless objection.

Here, then, are the twin rallying cries that will see our movement through its next decade: Keep It in the Ground, yes, but also Build It from the Ground Up. Balancing these postures will require courage, wisdom, and honest communication about legitimately difficult choices. It will require building a movement culture light on ideological shibboleths and strong on benefit of the doubt, a culture that replaces cynicism with forbearance and anxiety with grace, a culture that looks outward toward victory rather than inward toward whatever fissures are being widened and monetized by the Twitter algorithm. It will require recommitting ourselves to understanding our movement as an ecosystem, so that those chaining themselves to pipelines and those lobbying the Senate see each other not as dumb distractions but as legitimate allies pursuing complementary strategies. 

Put another way, the climate movement will need to grow beyond its accustomed role of underdog. As the economy transitions from fossils to renewables, we will need to start thinking hegemonically.

Daniel Sherrell is a climate movement organizer and the author of Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of our World (2021).