Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Given the intensity of the news cycle, the Inflation Reduction Act might seem like old news.
But the bill, which passed the U.S. House on Friday and is headed to President Joe Biden for his signature, is significant — especially for climate change mitigation, health care cost containment, deficit reduction and other vital concerns.
The legislation's climate change provisions represent the nation's most significant investment in addressing this existential threat. And while it's not a line-item expenditure, there's an additional profound benefit: It reestablishes the U.S. as the key global leader in tackling climate change, which is crucial in convincing other countries to live up to their pledged efforts.
These "nationally determined commitments," or NDCs, are what comprise comprehensive climate change agreements like the Paris accord, Jessica Hellmann, director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, told an editorial writer in an e-mail exchange. "So it makes sense that we create a suite of programs, incentives, and regulations that shift our economy and curtail our emissions."
The IRA intends to do just that, incentivizing the transition from fossil fuels to renewable resources for businesses and consumers with $369 billion over 10 years in programs including electric-vehicle and clean-energy tax breaks. A fee on fossil-fuel companies for excessive methane emissions is also included, and $60 billion is slated for environmental justice concerns.
Overall, the bill and additional efforts by other national, state and local government entities could cut greenhouse gases by 40% by the end of the decade.
Beyond the signing ceremony, it's essential to keep a keen eye on implementation, Hellmann said. "Energy transition is about promoting and enabling new things ... and also stopping others."
Promoting U.S. commitments and thus prodding other countries will be aided by the perception that the U.S. isn't just rhetorical but real about its efforts on climate change.
"It will do a lot to restore the U.S. ability to say, 'Look, we're also making progress, we are a fellow traveler in this effort,'" Clayton Allen, director of the U.S. for the Eurasia Group, told an editorial writer. "This bill should be viewed as only a positive for climate process from a functional perspective, and a positive for the U.S. political influence globally."
The geopolitical influence couldn't come at a more crucial time, as three key global players appear headed in distinct, if not different, directions.
Before the president's prioritization of climate change, the European Union has moved with more alacrity and unity than the U.S., and reasserting American leadership can only help encourage that trend.
That's important not only for Western efforts but also for China. Using the pretense of the "egregious provocation" of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, Beijing has announced it is suspending cooperation with the U.S. on climate change mitigation.
While alarming, especially because the two nations are the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, the impact is blunted by China's desire to continue working with the E.U., "so it's reasonable to assume that the coordination that's been ongoing between China and the E.U. will continue and likely keep things moving in relatively the same direction as they were before," Allen said.
That still doesn't mean that the accelerating East-West geopolitical split won't manifest itself in climate-change mitigation, too. That raises some critical questions for Allen: "Does the war in Ukraine start to bifurcate the global system where you have countries that are more closely hewing to the influence of China and Russia and those that are hewing more closely to the influence of the U.S.? And does that incentivize some countries to maybe move away from some of the climate goals or incentives that have been set by the U.S. and its Western allies in hopes of securing ties with richer major exporters of oil and coal?"
If so, the consequences could be catastrophic. As just one example of the pernicious effects of delayed action, on Thursday, scientists in Finland announced that parts of the Arctic were warming four times faster than the global average, not the two to three times commonly reported.
There should be no illusions about the damage already being done, and the fraught geopolitics that threaten national action that can create an effective international response. But no meaningful progress can happen without the U.S. on board, let alone in the lead, which makes the action taken by Congress and Biden big news now, and even more so in the future.