By Bill McKibben
For decades now, when asked about the point of one climate protest or another, I’ve usually said something to the effect of: we fight to change the zeitgeist, people’s sense of what is normal and natural and obvious. Yes, we fight to block this pipeline or divest that pension fund, and each of those is important: but they add up to something more, a slowly moving weight that eventually shifts from one side to the other.
That’s what happened last night when Joe Manchin caved. Now the Senate finally—for the first time in more than three decades—seems set to pass actual serious climate legislation.
The bill—now called the Inflation Reduction Act—is no unmitigated victory. It is larded with presents for the fossil fuel industry, in return for the gifts they’ve lavished on Manchin. And it may come with real defeats: the fear is that when all the details are revealed, Biden will have committed himself to backing absurd projects like the MVP pipeline.
But even those defeats kind of make the case: because people fought so hard to oppose such projects, the tide eventually became too much for Manchin to bear.
The pushback against his decision two weeks ago to blow up the deal was harsh—clearly harsher than Manchin expected. Within hours he was trying to make the case that he hadn’t actually walked away from negotiations. His fellow Senators stopped playing nice and made it clear they had no use for him. And the president seemed to understand he had to hit back: hence his increasingly clear talk of a climate emergency. But most of all it was, I think, the widespread public scorn. Somehow it began to break through to Manchin that the only thing history would ever remember about him is that he blocked action on the worst crisis humans have ever faced.
There’s no longer a real public doubt about climate change. Yes, for partisan Republicans it remains fun to pretend it’s a hoax, but after thirty years of science, fifteen years of movement building, and an ever-increasing cascade of fires, floods, heatwaves and droughts, the public mood is finally strong enough to at least begin to match the political power of the fossil fuel industry.
You could feel it building when Bernie made it a key campaign issue in 2016; by 2020, every Democratic candidate was on board, because primary polling showed it was one of the top two issues for voters. The political force most responsible for this victory was the Sunrise Movement; those young people built that wave and then rode it with immense skill.
But this is a win engineered by everyone who ever wrote a letter to the editor, carried a sign at a march, went to jail blocking a pipeline, voted to divest a university endowment, sent ten dollars to a climate group, made their book club read a climate book. It’s for the climate justice activists who brought this fight into whole new terrain, the scientists who’ve protested, the policy wonks who wonked, and the people whose particular fights may have been sacrificed by the terms of this deal. (Them in particular—if Manchin had to deal because a pipeline he wanted was going down in flames, well, the people who made that possible are heroes).
It’s not yet a done deal, and in any event far from a final win, of course. Now it’s time to make that same zeitgeist weigh on the financial industry, the other source of ultimate power in our society. It’s time for bank CEOs to feel what Manchin finally felt—the little shudder of worry at the idea that their names will be forever linked with the ravaging of a planet.
Together we can do it. Together we’ve done this.
Bill McKibben is an author, educator, and environmental activist; a founder of 350.org and Third Act.
This article was published July 27, 2022, at The Crucial Years.