West Yorkshire wind turbines in 2005. Credit: nualabugeye/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Future of the Labor-Climate Alliance

Relying on the private sector to decarbonize is a recipe for abandoning workers.

J. Mijin Cha is an assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is also a fellow at Cornell University’s Climate Jobs Institute and a member of the Climate and Community Project.

President Joe Biden has emphasized the need for climate action since he was on the campaign trail. His platform included policies inspired by the Green New Deal, and one of his first acts in office was to issue an omnibus executive order calling for a “Whole of Government” approach to tackling the climate crisis. Then, in August 2022, he signed the Inflation Reduction Act. Heralded as the most significant piece of U.S. climate legislation to date, the IRA allocates $369 billion to incentivize clean energy, energy efficiency, electric vehicle purchases, and other supply-side measures to build demand for low-carbon technologies and products. Its underlying philosophy is that if renewable energy and low-carbon technology is cheap and plentiful, market dynamics will make fossil fuel production and use prohibitively expensive.

The IRA has also been promoted as a climate jobs bill; one estimate projects that the law will create roughly 900,000 jobs per year over the next decade. The Biden administration’s focus on good climate jobs is the result of the hard work of climate and labor activists alike. For decades, any attempt to expand environmental regulations was met with industry threats of job losses due to increased compliance and operation costs. Industries were able to successfully pit workers against environmentalists, who were perceived, at times with good reason, as elitists who cared more about animals than people. Now, after decades of organizing, unions have become more engaged in pushing for climate action, while climate advocates have recognized that workers are integral to winning ambitious climate policy. The job-creating power of decarbonization is an important draw for those who may not have been otherwise engaged in climate politics.

Equally important is the recognition that workers and the environment both face harm from companies. Capitalist principles reduce environmental protections to costs that cut into profits. The same goes for worker protections and wages. The IRA was an opportunity to provide an alternative model: investment in public projects and moving away from privatizing the clean energy economy. Instead, the law continues to place faith in the private sector to do right by workers and the climate. The underlying belief is that if enough incentives are provided, businesses will act in ways that are socially beneficial. An analysis by McKinsey found that the majority of energy and climate funding in the IRA comes in the form of tax credits for corporations. They will receive them regardless of what they pay in taxes; if the credit is more than the tax bill, they pocket the difference.

Furthermore, while the IRA is likely to spur private-sector renewable energy development and uptake of low-carbon technology, it does not fundamentally disrupt fossil fuel systems….

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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