Skip to content

Boehland: We are in a climate crisis. Federal legislation is necessary but insufficient.


For anyone who worries about climate change – and, since climate stability is an imperative for social progress and human flourishing, that should be all of us – it’s been a rough summer.

We have entered the age of climate crisis. The planet is blinking red, sending regular announcements that the climate is out of balance and veering further off kilter by the year. Just a few recent examples:

  • Cities around the world—including Boston, Nashville, and Newark—set new daily records for heat, and London registered its hottest day ever.
  • Flash floods hit communities from St. Louis to Sydney—and killed scores of people across Kentucky, Iran, and South Africa.
  • Mexico City was buried in inches of ice during a freak hailstorm.
  • Unprecedented wildfires burned across Europe and Alaska and threatened Yosemite National Park in California.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season will be worse than average—for the seventh year in a row.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s Judicial and Legislative branches appeared AWOL, slowing the Biden-Harris administration’s response to the timed test of climate action and hobbling global cooperation to address the crisis.

  • In its June 30 decision on West Virginia v. EPA, the Supreme Court radically constricted the ability of federal agencies—and the dedicated experts who work in them—to regulate power plant emissions and called into question their ability to regulate vehicle emissions and perform a range of other functions. See Kresge President Rip Rapson’s comments on the decision.
  • Just two weeks later, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin—and, let’s not forget, every one of his Republican colleagues—appeared to pound the final nail in the coffin of Build Back Better, which would have added more than $500 billion of accelerant to the U.S. transition to clean energy.

However, hopes of federal climate action were kindled by surprise news on July 27 that Senator Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had agreed on a budget reconciliation proposal—the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022—that would direct $369 billion toward climate and energy programs over the coming decade, reducing U.S. carbon emissions 40% from 2005 levels by 2030. That’s less than the 50% reduction the U.S. committed to in the Paris Agreement, but far more than we are currently on track to achieve. Among other welcome elements, the draft legislation includes $27 billion to establish a federal Green Bank and $60 billion for environmental justice priorities.

The Inflation Reduction Act is far from a done deal, though, and it includes significant concessions to the fossil fuel industry. The Climate Justice Alliance opposes the legislation, believing its harms outweigh its benefits. Even if the Inflation Reduction Act passes, it will be vastly insufficient.

Where now should we focus our energy—and, for those of us in philanthropy, our money?

The scope and urgency of the climate crisis demand a comprehensive response. We need the entirety of the federal government to acknowledge and address the problem. The Judicial and Legislative branches must treat climate change as the crisis it is. The Executive branch should do the same.

 Executive Leadership

  • We should encourage the Biden-Harris administration to accelerate its “whole-of-government” approach to the climate crisis. Every federal department and agency will be affected by climate change and has something to contribute to its response.
  • We should hold the administration accountable for delivering on the Justice40 Initiative, a commitment that 40% of the benefits of certain federal investments will flow to communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.
  • The administration should take a range of executive actions to advance federal climate leadership. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has a good list of suggestions, which he sums up as “Climate Beast Mode.”
  • Among those executive actions, we should encourage President Biden to declare a Climate Emergency. Doing so would help reset the climate conversation, signaling the administration’s unrelenting commitment to addressing the climate crisis and enabling it to take some stopgap actions to prevent irreparable harm. For a sense of what this might entail, see this report from the Center for Biological Diversity.

Beyond federal policy, we can and should engage in these spheres:

  • Local Policy. Climate change is a global problem that demands systemic treatment. At the same time, its causes and effects are local, and countless local leaders have taken up the challenge of transitioning to renewable energy and preparing for the effects of climate change. More than 470 U.S. mayors representing 740 million Americans, for example, have joined Climate Mayors and are demonstrating leadership through meaningful action in their communities. We should support ambitious local action and ensure it is just and equitable.
  • State Policy. State policy is also needed, and many governors and state legislatures are taking that responsibility seriously. Governors from 24 states (including three Republicans) have joined the S. Climate Alliance, which is committed to reducing carbon emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. We should support this work in all U.S. states and territories and ensure it is just and equitable.
  • The Private Sector. The private sector increasingly understands that climate change will be catastrophic for businesses and communities alike—and that customers want to be part of the solution. As one indicator, more than 3,000 companies and financial institutions have joined the Science-Based Targets Initiative, which is helping the private sector transition to a zero-carbon economy. We should support this shift and ensure it is scientifically sound as well as just and equitable.

Action at the federal, local, state, and corporate levels is indispensable but inadequate. To make any of this work, we need an informed public demanding meaningful and equitable climate action, and we need leaders at all levels who are accountable to the public. And so, we also must pull with all our might on two final, foundational levers:

  • Movement Building. Build Back Better, the Inflation Reduction Act, and an executive Climate Emergency declaration would never have been contemplated without the energy behind the burgeoning climate justice movement, and that movement is just getting started. We should support efforts to grow, strengthen, and coordinate the climate justice movement and to help it link arms with the movements for racial justice, economic justice, gender equity, and human rights.
  • Democracy. American democracy, perhaps inherently fragile, has sustained terrible damage the past several years, and the timing of that damage could not be worse. We face a paradox that, while the pressures of climate change will further strain the social fabric, a healthy democracy is necessary to address the threat of climate change. We must work with speed and determination to repair the damage and strengthen our democracy. We must protect voting rights, prevent partisan gerrymandering, help eligible voters register and get to the polls, and reduce voter suppression and intimidation. Elections at all levels of government must be free and fair.

As the climate crisis intensifies, each branch of the federal government, along with every state and local government and every sector of the economy, has a role in bringing about climate stability and climate justice. Every lever matters, because every fraction of a degree matters. We must fight with all our tools, intelligence, and might to prevent climate change from becoming unmanageable.