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A victory at whose expense? Climate activists grapple with political compromise.

Demonstrators during a rally outside the White House as part of the “Climate Chaos Is Happening Now” protest on Oct. 13, 2021, in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

This is the moment climate activists had been working toward.

After years of protests and political fights, Congress is poised to pass its largest-ever climate bill: a record $369 billion that will be invested in clean energy projects, electric vehicle incentives and a program to curb methane pollution. The legislation will position the biggest greenhouse gas producer in history closer to achieving the emissions cuts scientists say are required to avert disastrous warming.

Yet the celebrations over the bill among Democrats and activists this week troubled Rhiana Gunn-Wright, director of climate policy at the liberal Roosevelt Institute think tank and one of the authors of the Green New Deal framework that had animated so much of the climate movement in recent years.

“What was so painful for a lot of people, including me, was seeing the one-note celebration of this ‘historic’ bill,” Gunn-Wright said.

Though Gunn-Wright agreed the bill was probably the best this Congress could deliver, she wanted environmental groups to be just as vocal about its potential harm to low-income people of color who are disproportionately likely to live near the polluting fossil fuel infrastructure that will also get a boost in the bill as part of a hard-fought political compromise.

After the bill passed the Senate on Sunday, she recalled seeing mostly White activists tweet about hugging their children, proud that progress on climate had finally been made.

“I got that, I understood that,” said Gunn-Wright, who is Black. “But I looked at my own 8-month-old and I didn’t feel that. What I felt more was, yes, we made some progress, but I couldn’t tell him that it wouldn’t be at his expense one day.”

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With the House poised to approve the bill Friday and President Biden signing it into law shortly thereafter, the climate movement is on the brink of its biggest legislative success. But tensions within the movement have also emerged in recent days as activists grapple with the challenge of figuring out what comes next — having tested the limits, for now, of the American political system.

“It’s clear to me that this is both a big step forward and there’s more work to do,” said Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the youth-led Sunrise Movement. “And we have to make the case to young people that this happened because of them and we have to keep going.”

Prakash called the moment “bittersweet.”

“I find myself thinking that this bill is not enough. It leaves people out,” she said. “Many communities will still be left to a status quo of pollution and degradation in the places they live and work.”

“And yet,” she added, “it has to pass to give my generation even a fighting chance [of] living in a world that averts the worst of the climate catastrophe.

The legislation that emerged this summer from secretive talks between Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) is a far cry from the $3.5 trillion climate and social spending package originally proposed by Biden.

It’s even further from the original vision backed by the Sunrise Movement and other liberal groups: a sweeping program for social justice and environmental action that would invest trillions of dollars in reshaping the economy.

To secure Manchin’s support, the Inflation Reduction Act includes several provisions that will benefit the fossil fuel industry: a pledge to open up new oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico; a commitment that congressional Democrats and the White House will complete a controversial pipeline carrying gas from West Virginia; and a promise to pursue a separate measure that would ease permitting requirements for fossil fuel facilities as well as clean energy infrastructure. It also allocates billions of dollars for carbon capture and storage — a technology that many climate advocates say does not address air pollution and other local threats to communities.

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That the Senate has passed any kind of climate legislation is a testament to the growth and unity of the environmental movement in recent years, said University of Maryland sociologist Dana Fisher, who has studied climate policy and activism for more than 20 years.

Environmental groups have increasingly framed fighting climate change as an opportunity to address economic inequality, racial injustice and a swathe of other social issues. That vision drew younger and more diverse activists to the climate movement, and — combined with the increasingly apparent dangers of global warming — helped mobilize millions of people to protest and vote, Fisher said. By the time Biden was elected, climate and environmental justice concerns had become centerpieces of the Democratic agenda.

And when Manchin announced in December that he would no longer participate in negotiations over Biden’s climate and social spending package — part of a protracted drama over the legislation — “they continued to put pressure on [Democrats] and shine a light on the issue,” Fisher said. “Its impossible to imagine we would have this bill otherwise.”

But Fisher has also spent decades tracking the rise and fall of proposed climate legislation: The 1997 vote against a U.N. pact to cut greenhouse gas pollution; the failure of multiple bipartisan efforts to reduce emissions; and the 2009 demise of an ambitious cap and trade program.

“Basically all of my research showed that vested interests, and fossil fuel interests, have been extremely successful in consolidating power and translating their power into success when it comes to legislation,” she said.

“It makes me sound terrible,” she said, “but bundling fossil fuel interests and climate interests in some way … was why we finally got a bill that works.”

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That political calculus has led to some rifts within the coalition of traditional “Big Green” groups, youth climate activists and environmental justice organizers that helped bring about this moment.

Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice for the nonprofit New York Lawyers for Public Interest, resigned from the advisory board of the climate group Evergreen Action on Monday out of frustration with the group’s response to the bill.

Rogers-Wright said he is especially concerned about the side deal to ease permitting requirements, which could weaken a critical environmental protection law that requires federal agencies to scrutinize the impacts of major infrastructure projects. Black, Latino and Indigenous communities have frequently used the law to contest projects that could have harmed their neighborhoods.

“This could be a demotivator,” Rogers-Wright said. “And that’s my challenge to people who are celebrating this with victory laps. Are you going to go to poor environmental justice communities and sell this and say, ‘Look, we had to sell you out to get to this point?’ ”

“There’s no such thing as ‘net justice,’ ” he added.

Evergreen Action’s co-founder and executive director, Jamal Raad, sees it differently.

“I think we need to not think of this as a conclusion but a kind of a catalyzing moment where we use this to make ourselves stronger and build off it,” he said.

By lowering the cost of wind and solar energy, he said, the bill can make it easier for states to set clean electricity standards. The investments in electric vehicles and low-carbon heating systems can catalyze industries that will then build support for more climate policy.

And he pledged that Evergreen would prioritize supporting environmental justice groups in their efforts to block harmful infrastructure.

“I fundamentally disagree that this is worse than nothing,” Raad said. “With Democrats possibly on the precipice of losing one or more chambers in November, it was imperative to act now.”

The looming midterm elections put still more pressure on advocacy groups to figure out their next steps. While some worried that the disappointments of the bill would make voters less enthusiastic this fall, others turned that logic on its head, arguing that its shortcomings show the need to elect more politicians who support climate action.

“We need to have more environmental champions so we can do even bigger, bolder, more transformational things at federal level through legislation,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.

Prakash said Sunrise would continue to lobby for Biden to declare a climate emergency and take further executive actions to curb emissions. The organization is also launching campaigns to help young people join school boards and advocate for Green New Deal-style policies at the city and state level.

“If anything, the last few years have taught us real lessons in the fact that it’s really hard to achieve the full scale of your vision and your values when you’re not governing,” she said. “And we need a lot more power if we want to do this bigger next time.”

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