Missed Opportunities: US Energy and Climate Actions in 2022

 
by Seth Morris
 
 
Introduction

This article will cover the two major events in U.S. federal climate policy in 2022: (1) the drawn-out abolition, by the Supreme Court, of unprecedented federal greenhouse gas regulations, and (2) the ratification of climate spending packages in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Even as UN climate frameworks assume that the practical measures needed to avert or stop climate catastrophe depend upon the policy initiatives of capitalist nation-states, the U.S. has done little lately to implement practical measures for climate mitigation.

Reflecting on the inability of business (or politics) as usual to meet the challenge of climate change, this article suggests that Marxist-Humanism’s development of the Hegelian dialectic offers a theoretical approach to an alternative to the many false promises made for a “sustainable future.”
 

The Road to the EPA’s Defeat in the Supreme Court

On June 30, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court declared its decision in the case of West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This case combined four separate petitions (led by the states of West Virginia and North Dakota, as well as the North American Coal Corporation and Westmoreland Mining Holdings LLC) into one final ruling over the legality of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). The majority opinion in favor of the plaintiffs rolled back federal climate action. This caused alarm, for good reason. A few months later, the Democratic Party promised some form of effective countermeasure to this defeat through its congressional and executive power.

What was the Clean Power Plan, and Why was it Significant?

In 2009, the (then more liberal) Supreme Court ruled, in Massachusetts v. EPA, that EPA has an obligation to mitigate climate change and greenhouse gas emissions (from cars) under the 1970 Clean Air Act (CAA), to which it can and should be held legally accountable. And under President Obama, the EPA officially recognized the negative human health and environmental impacts of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and pivoted its priorities toward greenhouse-gas emission reductions.

The Obama administration and the EPA formally announced the Clean Power Plan in August 2015. It sought to expand and enforce the Agency’s regulatory powers under section 111 of the CAA, which “directs the [EPA to develop] emission standards for pollutants emitted by existing sources in the listed categories.” The Agency extended this authority to include standards for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which were not explicitly included in the CAA’s pollutants list[1] or its National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

The CPP became the EPA’s first attempt to limit CO2 emission reductions at power plants through federal policy. It primarily aimed at achieving a target of 32% emission reductions below 2005 levels and cleaner power generation (e.g., by shifting fuel from coal to gas) in accordance with state/tribal/territorial capacities and priorities. Though the CPP set its 32% reduction target for the year 2030, that target was already surpassed for the first time in 2020 even without the CPP in effect.

The CPP would have required that U.S. states, tribes, and territories develop an action plan to meet specific CO2 emissions targets for the power systems under their jurisdiction. If local stakeholders refused to adopt satisfactory targets, their targets were to be established independently by the EPA.[2] The Senior Director of the Climate & Clean Energy Program of the National Resource Defense Council, Derek Murrow, argued in his endorsement of the CPP that “EPA has been conservative in estimating the quantity of clean energy resources available to the states and how much carbon pollution they can reduce.”[3]

The CPP also aimed to create a federal cap-and-trade market, in which the power plants that emit less than their specific maximum targets receive credits (for rate-based emissions) or allowances (for mass-based emissions) to sell to other plants that overshoot their maximum emission targets. In principle, a plant that exceeded the EPA’s demands to “decarbonize” power plants would be rewarded in the credits/allowances market, but only if a heavier polluter––a plant that fell short of the target––bought its credits or allowances (to avoid costlier penalties).

Scott Pruitt and the EPA under Trump

Trumpism has threatened the existence of the EPA since Trump’s early campaign promise to “get rid of it in almost every form.” Trump’s first appointee to EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, said, “We are committed to righting the wrongs of the Obama administration by cleaning the regulatory slate.” The “wrongs” he had in mind were those of the CPP. In 2019, Pruitt’s EPA presented a counterproposal of sorts to the CPP: the Affordable Clean Energy Rule (ACE). ACE promised to “restore rule of law, empower states, and support energy diversity.” The crucial distinction between CPP and ACE is that the former sought to establish legally enforceable limits to CO2 emissions (from all power plants), while the latter merely suggests best practices for efficiency improvement (from coal-fired plants).
 
 

Credit: MHI

 
The Supreme Court’s 6-year Battle against CPP
 
Pruitt’s actions in diverting EPA priorities away from those established under the Obama administration were facilitated by an exceptionally proactive Supreme Court. In its Michigan v. EPA (2015) decision, the rightward-shifting court required that the EPA consider economic costs when drafting policies to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. In 2016, the CPP was still under review in the D.C. Court of Appeals when the Supreme Court “stayed” it (i.e., temporarily halted its implementation). This was the first time that the Supreme Court had stayed a rule while it was still under the jurisdiction of a lower court. Although the stay halted the CPP’s implementation only temporarily, it lasted long enough to serve the Supreme Court’s purpose of ultimately defeating it. As the appeals process did not satisfy the aims of anti-CPP petitioners, the final judicial review of CPP waited until West Virginia v. EPA earlier this summer.

Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion summarized the plaintiffs’ accusations that CPP showed EPA overreach. It employed an obstructionist strategy called the “major questions doctrine.” This doctrine holds that a “major question,” a “question of deep economic and political significance” (in the words of Justice Gorsuch), cannot be influenced by a federal agency unless it can “point to ‘clear congressional authorization’ for the power it claims” (in the words of Chief Justice Roberts). By requiring further “clear congressional authorization” before the EPA can regulate carbon emissions from electricity, the decision subjects EPA’s mandate to the veto of Congress’s obstructive fossil fuel faction.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a concurring opinion for West Virginia v. EPA. He argued that vesting federal legislative power in Congress “is vital because the framers believed that a republic––a thing of the people––would be more likely to enact just laws than a regime administered by a ruling class of largely unaccountable ‘ministers.’”

So, what do “the people” think about the CPP?

In the fall of 2014, researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed 942 Americans, finding 67% in support of the CPP (support for “requiring significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from [new and] existing power plants”). A larger majority supported regulation of only new power plants, new homes and appliances, and renewable portfolio standards. But only 31% supported increased fossil fuel taxes on power plants. Climate-change denial influences attitudes toward regulation, but even 49% of the climate-change deniers who were surveyed supported emission regulations for new power plants. To summarize, the people demand more of their ministers than the Roberts and Gorsuch opinions imply.

On the topic of accountability, a Gallup poll published a week before the West Virginia v. EPA decision found that only 25% of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the Supreme Court, which was a record low. Gorsuch’s mother, Anne Burford, was President Reagan’s first appointee to EPA Administrator and an advocate of delegating regulation of public services to states instead of “Uncle Sam” whenever possible.[4] She revealed her own ambivalence about democracy and institutional responsibility by claiming that, “if pressed to name EPA’s greatest strength, I would have to say that its real strength is the fact that the agency’s mission enjoys enormous popular support among the people of America” (emphasis added). That mission, put simply, is to protect human health and the environment.

Justice Gorsuch responded to the dissent’s claim that EPA’s ability to implement emission regulations concerns “the greatest challenge of our time,” i.e., climate change. Gorsuch is not an outright climate-change denialist; his response called climate change “one of ‘the greatest challenge[s] of our time’” (emphasis added).

But there is little practical difference between denial and intentional inaction. In terms of political priorities, the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court is aware that the democratic mandate of the EPA, if left unobstructed, threatens certain political and economic interests. The interests it threatens are not the political and economic interests of humanity, or of future generations, or even of the American people, but rather the personal interests of John Roberts, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, Mitch McConnell, Scott Pruitt, etc.––as members of a larger political and economic elite, and also as individual ideologues who want to manifest their ideologies through statecraft.
 

The Inflation Reduction Act: A Democratic Congress Legislates its Response

The Manchin Problem: Negotiations for a Clean Deal, Warnings of a Dirty Deal

In seeking majority Senate approval for the Inflation Reduction Act, Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer negotiated separately with notorious obstructionists Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona (who is now a declared “Independent,” not a Democrat) and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Manchin stands out particularly for his support for fossil fuels. He is a founder of Enersystems, Inc., a local coal brokerage company operating since 1988, and a willing recipient of campaign funding from the broader fossil fuel industry.

In exchange for Manchin’s vote on the Inflation Reduction Act, Schumer apparently reassured Manchin that West Virginia’s Mountain Valley Pipeline project will be given a regulatory fast-track, allowing it to be completed and to become operational in the near future. The negotiations between Manchin and party leadership became immediately known as the “Dirty Deal.” The Mountain Valley Pipeline has faced popular opposition for years, and for the third time in 2022, Manchin has failed to secure enough Senate votes to amend the Dirty Deal into legislation, despite Schumer’s quiet support.
 

           Credit: Roger Crabtree in Blacklisted News

 
Manchin has said “we’re still trying,” and perhaps with a marginally majority-Republican House of Representatives, he will have a better chance of succeeding. But the opposition will not give up either.

Pipeline protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, against Enbridge Line 3 (which would go through largely Ojibwe and Anishinaabe land), and against the Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia itself, have been met with state-sanctioned brutality and legal contempt for human rights. Indigenous peoples in particular often experience the worst of environmental destruction, the destruction of legal and political rights attached to land under tribal sovereignty, and “man camps” of temporary pipeline workers that contribute to the ongoing crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Yet state repression and obstruction has not been enough to suppress the conviction of women, Indigenous people, youth, and other people in the US and around the world that a better world is possible and worth fighting for. Manchin’s Dirty Deal presents an obvious and sensible target for popular opposition: no democracy should tolerate such blatant disregard of the dignity of human life.

The Inflation Reduction Act: Part “Inflation Reduction”, Part “Green New Deal”

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which President Biden signed into law in August after approval from both bodies of Congress, allocates $790 billion toward inflation-reducing activities in health care, taxation, and clean energy. Energy and climate grants, loans, credits, and incentives make up a combined $386 billion of the $485 billion package of spending measures and tax breaks. The most costly individual policy, by far, is the $161 billion for Clean Electricity Tax Credits, which lower the cost of localized wind, solar, and battery installation by 30%.

Where the EPA’s Clean Power Plan sought to regulate fossil fuel energy infrastructure, the IRA instead incentivizes clean energy expansion. The IRA justifies its planned climate spending by promising that it will reduce inflation, instead of using terms of the “job guarantee” or “just transition” that are found in advocacy for a Green New Deal. Yet some of the critiques of the Green New Deal’s potential implementation apply to the IRA as well. As Brendan Cooney has said,

if averting climate change is tied to the political promise that, in so doing, we are creating a new golden era of capitalism in which all the social contradictions of capitalism have been managed through a benevolent state […], then we are endangering the long-term transformation of the economy by this promise. If these populist promises don’t work out […] then the people that bought into this project because of these promises are not going to be able to politically sustain their commitment to this transformation.

Projections of cumulative deficit reduction and greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 years depend in part on the provisions of the IRA, but other factors also matter. The fossil-fuel industry has not yet practically conceded to the moral demands of a habitable planet, particularly in the United States and, as Manchin’s activities demonstrate, the Inflation Reduction Act avoids new federal regulation of fossil fuels. The notion that the global climate crisis can be fixed simply, by means of politicians’ fiscal adjustments to natural-resource markets, seems absurd from a historical perspective. The climate package within the IRA may be a sorely needed step in the right direction, but the Intergovermental Panel of Climate Change’s warming projections urgently call for radical transformation of our energy economy, not small steps.
 

Conclusion: What Should We Expect?

In the 2022 elections, the Republican Party won a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, closing the brief window of bicameral control by the Democrats in which the IRA, as well as the Respect for Marriage Act, could smoothly pass into law. The Democrats could have done more with that opportunity, and the prior Clean Power Plan was insufficient as climate policy in its own ways.

But that is no excuse for indifference toward the Supreme Court’s judicial overreach or toward the broader threat of attempted (and often successful) dismantling of democratic institutions by the Right. In Raya Dunayevskaya’s words, the movement for a better world, for social-ecological transformation, must constitute a “force” that is simultaneously “reason.” To highlight what this means, I would like to point out the relevance, to Marxist-Humanism, of Lenin’s dialectics of revolution, which differs in principle from the “ecological Leninism” advocated by Andreas Malm and other Marxists.

Raya Dunayevskaya wrote, “As Lenin grappled with a return to the Hegelian dialectic, he held that,  far from philosophy being an abstraction, it is when a movement transforms revolution into an abstraction that betrayal is inescapable, and irreversible.[5] That abstract revolutionism leads, in practice, to betrayal of revolutionary movements can be easily seen in the many impractical promises that a “sustainable future” is just around the corner––once we enact this or that plan, of course. Do we just need the right plan to fix the climate crisis? Maybe the right people? In either case, a plan is just an abstraction if it is not carried out, and a vanguard is not a vanguard if it cannot gain political legitimacy. Elsewhere, Dunayevskaya noted that, in his response to Bukharin’s theory of state-capitalism, Lenin is saying “that the days when plan and planlessness were considered absolute opposites are gone forever. What is now on the agenda is listening to the voices from below not only for the theoretical preparation for revolution […] but for reconstruction of society on new beginnings.”[6]

In continuity with the Hegelian dialectic, the “algebra of revolution” for which “the transformation of reality is central” (ibid., p. 10), Marxist-Humanism takes up the challenge of moving beyond Lenin’s own duality of Party leadership vs. spontaneous mass action, a duality that reduces political economy to systems of accounting and control. As self-developing Subjects, we have a responsibility to ourselves, our species, our planet, to move beyond theoretical and practical impediments to human liberation, regardless of their origins or intentions. On the Hegelian dialectic within Marx’s philosophy of revolution, Dunayevskaya wrote that “what is at stake is not only philosophy but reality, the dialectic not only of thought but of history, and not only of yesterday but of today. The lifeblood of the dialectic is the continuity of the movement of history.”[7]

The particular economic relations and ecological problems causing the climate crisis are historical developments that influence, and are themselves influenced by, the totality of human relations. Marx’s philosophy––especially in its idea of “revolution in permanence” and its call for a “new” and “thoroughgoing” Naturalism or Humanism––provides solid theoretical grounds to perceive and practice a living dialectic between human and non-human nature. This task cannot isolate Marx’s philosophy from its continuity with Marx’s critique of political economy; holding them together in one relation is crucial, because the future is at stake.
 
 
Notes
[1] The CAA pollutants list has not been updated since the 1990 amendments, which were specifically meant to address the ozone crisis.

[2] Parties choose to adopt rate-based targets (measured in pounds of CO2 emitted for every Megawatt hour of power), or mass-based targets (total short tons of CO2).

[3] Murrow characterized the CPP as having “reasonable” and “achievable” goals, particularly compared to EPA’s prior attempts at state partnership.

[4] This policy approach was called New Federalism. Burford claimed the EPA at the time was “the only agency in Washington that was truly practicing [the theory].” Anne M. Burford, in Views from the Former Administrators, EPA Journal – November 1985.

[5] Raya Dunayevskaya, “New Beginnings that Determine the End…: Draft Perspectives––1978-1979,” section III, p. 11, col. 3, emphasis in original.

[6] Raya Dunayevskaya, “State-Capitalism and Marx’s Humanism, or Philosophy and Revolution,” p. 13.

[7] Philosophy and Revolution, p. 50.
 
 
 

2 Comments

  1. This article gestures to a dynamic that I think needs much more attention from the Marxist Left. It would be great if the author could follow the thread he introduces in a future article.

    Seth mentions Standing Rock and Indigenous resistance to industrial development on their land. He also mentions that Indigenous people experience the worst of climate destruction. Finally, he quotes Lenin saying we should follow the voices from below, and Dunayevskaya who saw those movements from below as a form of reason.

    A conclusion to me, that is not explicitly stated in the article, is that Marxists need to take seriously not just the actions, but the thought, of Indigenous warriors, scholars, and nations. Just as Marx was inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy, I think Marxists today should be less quick to dismiss the theory and practice of Indigenous people than they usually are.

    I’m glad you mentioned Indigenous resistance, Seth, and I would be excited to see you explore that more in the future.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! Your discussion of Indigenous voices as reason didn’t get any treatment in the article but is far from a “solved problem” for the climate movement. I personally worry that an unserious answer to environmental problems – an answer that neglects the need for both human agency and coherence between a shared philosophy of liberation and the process of organizing that liberation – is, for a range of political ideologies, the only effective form of action.
      For example, I find it totally sensible that youth, Indigenous people, and women would tend to be further along in terms of a revolutionary force that is reason than their demographic counterparts in their opposition to ecological destruction for obvious historical reasons. I think it’s crucial not to forget that Indigenous people and youth have been clear in their voice and actions of opposition toward the drivers of climate change and environmental destruction. On the other hand, it’s a difficult task to challenge and abolish the capitalistic processes and tendencies that perpetuate and exacerbate climate change, especially when the perceived “beneficiaries” of climate change are so economically and socially incompatible with the “frontline and vulnerable communities” (in GND lingo), whose rights have been under attack since before climate politics became an issue. I’m partly trying to say that the dialectic of philosophy and organization (for Dunayevskaya and more broadly) has to reach beyond the ‘movement from practice to theory’, which Dunayevskaya observed among both Maoists and (green) anarchists (like Daniel Cohn-Bendit) in the 60s/70s student movements. The dialectics of liberation should not exclude Indigenous voices, it should not misrepresent them, and also it should not create enclaves where idealizing cultures leads to uncritical politics (a politics on behalf of colonized people, or the peasantry, or the proletariat, or the masses, which obstructs their self-determination).
      The broader issues brought up in the conclusion, re: Lenin and organization, omit any explicit mention of class distinctions, which would be important to discuss, but I don’t want to imply that environmental problems are in any way outside of, or irreconcilable with, the totality of Marx’s thought. ‘Neoliberalism’ and climate change have not made class analysis moot; class analysis wasn’t just a particular interest of Marx’s as a 19th century European. Class analysis partly determines reality under capitalism.

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