The passage of the historic US climate legislation this weekend sparked renewed hope in environmental circles and even tears of joy in Congress. Many who have spent decades on the front lines feel that, despite its imperfections, the landmark federal funding opens up new frontiers on which to fight in a rapidly changing world.
The call to arms rings especially true in the American west, where the devastating effects of the climate crisis – from drought to wildfires to heatwaves – are already hitting home.
And there’s little time to waste. While the bill may have the ability to stave off some of the worsening effects of global heating, it will take more to combat the catastrophes already unfolding.
“We have no more time on the climate crisis,” said Mary Creasman, CEO for EnviroVoters, an organization rooted in California that advocates and organizes for climate initiatives and environmental justice. Expressing “immense excitement,” about the bill, Creasman said it was encouraging to see that the federal government can still achieve big things.
But work remains, and that means ensuring the funding lands where it can be best put to use. And while enthusiasm abounds, there are also concerns that agencies set to receive a boost may be ill-equipped to turn dollars into impact.
“We are at a place where the scale of what needs to be done and the amount of time we have left,” she said, “every tool at our disposal is going to be needed.”
‘A small piece of what needs to be done’
Though the negotiating process left big concessions, including a continued commitment to oil and gas extraction alongside clean-energy provisions, the IRA pledges roughly $370bn for climate investments and promises a 40% reduction in emissions from 2005 levels over the next decade.
It’s packed with provisions that directly address issues being felt across the west, including $4bn for water saving measures and conservation programs for the beleaguered Colorado River basin. There will be $2.6bn set aside for conservation, restoration, and protection of coastal and marine habitats, $3bn to address pollution in frontline communities where people of color are disproportionately harmed by bad air quality, and big investments to fund the transition to a clean energy economy, including tax credits to lower the cost of electric vehicles and $3bn to electrify high-polluting ports.
Advocates are also celebrating a $5bn focus on forests and wildfire resilience that includes $1.8bn set aside for the forest service. The long-underfunded federal agency is tasked with managing much of the wildfire prevention work, including reducing the vegetation that turns to tinder when landscapes warm and dry. Forest treatments are scientifically proven to be an effective tool to reduce the risks of catastrophic fire and could help prevent devastation.
Albert Lin, environmental law professor at the University of California, Davis, called the plan “a big step forward”.
In the absence of federal action in recent years, the burden of this work has largely failed on other actors – states, local governments, NGOs and indigenous nations. While a splurge in financing and programs will help turn the tide, Lin cautioned that other agencies can’t lose their focus.
“The package is a piece – but it is a small piece – of what needs to be done,” he said.
Moreover, there are concerns that the forest service will struggle to meet the challenge at hand – even with the added cash.
After years of being starved for funding, the agency has fallen behind in staffing and executing the treatments needed to combat catastrophic fire, which were worsened by a century of fire suppression and poor land management. The results have been deadly – hampering battles against behemoth blazes and leaving important mitigation work undone across the west.
It’s still unclear how effective the agency will be at changing course. It’s struggling with worker retention and the task ahead is gargantuan.
“The agency can’t spend this money fast enough,” Susan Brown, the wildlands program director at the Western Environmental Law Center said, adding that along with systemic issues a culture shift may be required to achieve what Congress has intended with the bill. Even as the research mounts that prescribed burning along with the mechanical removal of vegetation is a key part of preventing fires, the agency shied away from the tool after a controlled burn sparked New Mexico’s largest fire in state history.
“You can throw all the money you want at some of these issues but if you don’t have the workforce and you don’t have the capacity to get things done, it doesn’t do anything,” said Patrick Bigger, the research director at the Climate and Community project.
walking the talk
Even if agencies can rise to the challenge, it will not stave off the changes already in motion. Forest treatments are vital but little can be done when temperatures spike and the winds blow across the desiccated hillsides, conditions that will increasingly align in a warmer world. The forested landscapes are already starting to change and the tall trees once adapted to flames are perishing.
“We humans may have created a planet that simply can’t sustain forests in the locations that we have become accustomed to having them,” Brown said. She encouraged to keep a watchful eye on the actions taken next.
Partnerships – especially with tribes and environmental justice groups – will be key to ensuring the impact goes beyond just another boon to the budget.
“I hope the forest service actually walks its talk and partners with communities and tribes and NGOs,” she said. “An infusion of cash is going to help – but only if it is spent wisely.”
For Bigger, that means ensuring more investments into the administration of projects and managers to oversee key partnerships. Agencies can’t do this work in a vacuum. Already, he said, grant money has been left on the table, “because there’s nobody there to administer that money”.
Advocates across the American west are gearing up for the next phase of the climate movement, one that – at least for now – may be aided by new levels of federal support.
“The way we have come to think about it is about resetting the playing field,” he said, noting that the legislation – with its positives and negatives – gives advocates new ground on which to fight. “There are going to be a lot of fights ahead.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism