How the climate movement learned to win in Washington

The seeds of success in 2022 began in June 2010, when Democrats last attempted to pass a sweeping climate-change bill. Back then, the party had far greater numbers in the House and Senate, but lacked the courage of their convictions.

The “Waxman-Markey” bill, which would have set an emissions trading plan and capped the amount of greenhouse gasses that could be emitted nationally, squeaked through the House in which the Democrats had a nearly 40-seat majority by seven votes. But the mood on the floor the day of the vote was grim. Democrats were divided. Dozens of them, fearing electoral blowback, were voting against it, while many voting for it expected to pay a price.

“Everyone saw it as a walking the plank vote,” recalled Perriello, one of the few lawmakers in competitive districts, along with Ohio Rep. John Boccieri, who voted yes. “We said, if this costs us our seat to save the planet, we are going to do it anyway.”

The Senate, where Democrats held 60 votes — enough to defeat a filibuster — never brought the legislation to the floor, just as many House holdouts had feared.

After the House voted, Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters. “We passed what you wanted,” she said. “Now are you going to have our backs?”

Karpinski told the speaker that, of course, his group would do everything in its power to support Democrats like Perriello who’d cast difficult votes. But it became clear soon enough that his organization — and the environmental movement writ large — had little political muscle to flex. That November, Democrats were obliterated in midterm elections driven by voter frustration over the initial rollout of the Affordable Care Act and the country’s slow economic recovery. Among the whopping 63 seats that Republicans took back was Perriello’s.

Last year, Democrats once again controlled Congress. But things were different. They had almost no margin for error in either the House or the 50-50 Senate. It took every last bit of pressure a far stronger, broader and more strategic climate movement could muster to get Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on board. But once he finally signed on, the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act was never in doubt.

This time, there were no defections.

On the morning of the House vote, some of Perriello’s former colleagues invited him to join them on the floor. He joined a flurry of caucus-wide jubilation and, amazingly, optimism about passing the largest climate package ever — and what it meant for the midterms just three months away.

“What was remarkable wasn’t just how excited everyone was to vote for this,” Perriello recalled. “People were talking about how they were going to run on this. It was a complete sea change in the politics.”

Last November, when Democrats defied history and averted the sweeping midterm defeats that the president’s party usually endures, it offered further proof, for many activists and policymakers, that acting on climate was essential not just for the planet’s survival but, politically speaking, their own.

“The politics have changed so dramatically that it is not okay to be against taking action any longer,” said Lori Lodes, the executive director of Climate Power, a paid media operation founded in 2020 to build support for legislative action. “Climate has come a long way over the last 12 years and it’s due to a lot of hard work.”

The IRA’s passage, ultimately, is more than a story of one powerful West Virginia senator reluctantly falling in line with the rest of his party. It’s the story of how the same activists who failed 12 years earlier succeeded in bringing enough pressure to bear that Manchin, who held up climate legislation for nearly a year until finally authoring a compromise, came back to the table — despite facing the prospect of seeking reelection in a state long considered synonymous with the fossil-fuel industry.

“It’s an infinitely more powerful movement than it was,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the 2010 bill’s co-sponsor. “And it is the movement that created the momentum for the moment when we finally passed the legislation.”

The climate coalition’s hard-won success is even being held up now as a template for other progressive advocacy groups. When Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to the president, has met with care economy activists about their priorities falling out of the final version of the IRA, she’s urged them to study the environmental groups’ political metamorphosis and the kind of long-term commitment that’s often required to win in Washington.

Twelve years after his grim conversation with Pelosi had clarified LCV’s shortcomings, Karpinski and other activists spoke with Dunn on a Zoom shortly after the IRA’s passage. Climate action, she told them, finally got done because of the campaign they ran.

“You guys made it impossible,” Dunn told the group, “for us to leave climate on the cutting room floor.”