President Joe Biden signed a spending bill into law earlier on August 16 to help fight climate change. (Courtesy NBC News)

“It’s late. It’s deeply compromised, and it’s also a great victory for all who have fought so long and so hard,” tweeted Bill McKibben, author, activist, and founder of, a global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis.

McKibben’s succinct, if seemingly contradictory, words describe the first major climate legislation in U.S. history. Dubbed a welcome shock, a turning point, the floor (not the ceiling) of our ambition, and a sign of concession by those in power, the victory can largely be attributed to the relentless demands of climate and environmental justice groups over many years.

Without a doubt, the legislation represents a major shift from previous U.S. climate policies in terms of tone, funding, and priorities. By 2030, it’s expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. by forty percent from 2005 levels, using nearly $400 billion over ten years for clean energy tax credits, climate justice initiatives, and other incentives. Importantly, the significant climate investments are hoped to invigorate similar efforts by other nations. 

Named the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022 (for political acceptance), the legislation has also been a great disappointment to many scientists, activists, officials, and progressive businesses. They know, and have known for decades, that time is fast running out to avoid or even minimize the catastrophic consequences of a heating planet for nearly eight billion humans, particularly and unacceptably the disadvantaged. They know that we will not prevail in this fight unless we end new investment in fossil fuel projects, phase out production, and make a speedy transition to clean, renewable energy sources.

Now, the real work begins. Whatever we do collectively—or don’t do— in this decade will likely determine the ultimate fate of billions of people, including our own families, and other species.

Decades of Dela

Despite being advised of the seriousness of the climate crisis thirty-four years ago, when then-NASA scientist James Hanson so testified to the U.S. Senate, our elected officials have failed to take necessary actions. Instead, they have preferred delay and obfuscations like blaming the behavior of individuals, while pandering to the executives, lawyers, and lobbyists for Big Coal, Oil, and Gas, collectively Big Carbon.

A 2010 Supreme Court decision (Citizens United) removed reasonable political campaign contribution limits. According to the New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert, “Fossil-fuel companies quickly figured out how to funnel money through front groups, which used it to reward the industry’s friends and to punish its enemies… Bipartisan activity on comprehensive climate legislation collapsed [after Citizens United].”

In a sudden reversal of position that was stunning, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) agreed, in late July, to support a climate and health care bill, despite his deep ties to the coal industry. With a slim margin—Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed—the measure passed Congress and was signed by President Biden in mid-August. Not surprisingly, Manchin’s support came at a cost: major concessions to Big Carbon that include gas pipelines, more drilling on public lands (national forests and recreation lands), and a possible overhaul of environmental laws.

Analysts say that the fossil fuel-friendly components of the IRA will be significantly outpaced by the emission reductions the bill’s green energy provisions will deliver. However, such a positive outcome is highly dependent on how the legislation is implemented in the coming years and whether assertive actions will also be taken at local and state levels. Voting for climate-literate local, state, and federal candidates is more important than ever. 

Meanwhile, human-generated greenhouse gas emissions, predominantly from transportation, electric power, industrial, and agricultural sectors, continue to rise. This activity has already warmed the world on average by 1.1 degrees Celsius (1.9 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times with devastating consequences: historic flooding, “thousand-year” storms, megadroughts, and water shortages. According to NASA, extreme heatwaves will become widespread at 1.5 degrees Celsius warming. 

Hope in a Hotter World  

Recently, I read a quote from poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou that helps me grapple with my own mixed feelings of hope (a stronger climate movement, innovative solutions, and passage of the IRA) and despair (the possibility that our slow and inadequate climate measures are too late and not enough). Angelo said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”

Grounded hope is essential, even when challenges are daunting. The concept presents a way of thinking and acting that pushes us forward to achieve our goals. Hope is what has sustained me for more than four decades of fighting against significant odds to help protect our environment and revive the Chattahoochee River. I can’t give up—and neither can you. Do the best you can, where you are.

Celebrating is also vital, even when the results, such as the final version of the IRA, are much less than perfect. I attended the “Georgia Celebration for Climate, Justice, and Joy,” hosted by the nonprofit Georgia Conservation Voters ( a few days after the IRA was signed into law. The organization’s young, inclusive leaders give me hope; their grassroots organizing, demands for democratic processes, and new strategies are smart and increasingly effective.

As nature philosopher and author Henry David Thoreau presciently wrote more than 150 years ago: “What is the use of a house, if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on.”

Science Moms (, a nonpartisan group of climate scientists working to demystify climate change and protect our kids’ future, is just one of many excellent sources for information and action. 

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.