How the climate movement learned to win in Washington

On a Tuesday night in February, Tom Perriello sat with his 80-year-old mother before the television set inside her Charlottesville, Va., home and wept.

President Joe Biden was in the midst of delivering a State of the Union address that touted his administration’s groundbreaking climate-change legislation. For Perriello, a former one-term member of Congress who had sacrificed his legislative career in part over his efforts to pass a climate change bill, the moment was one of pride and regret — also, amazement that a subject that had been so toxic that it had played a major role in the Democrats’ loss of 63 seats in the 2010 midterms was being viewed as a political winner.

“I really worried after 2009-10 we were never going to get another chance,” Perriello said.

Now, Biden himself seems to be gearing up for a reelection campaign based in part on the need for climate action. Among the legislative achievements Biden touted on that February evening was last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, which included the nation’s largest ever investment — $369 billion — to fight climate change. Following a now-familiar script, Biden focused on the economic benefits of a climate program centered around green industrial policy: “Lowering utility bills, creating American jobs, leading the world to a clean energy future.”

Since last summer when the law’s tax incentives became law, companies have invested nearly $200 billion in 126 clean energy projects in 33 states. But getting to this moment took far more than patience. It required what Perriello himself called a “sea change” in public attitudes spurred by an equally dramatic change in strategy from the environmental movement itself.

It also required a mobilization by green groups, their donors, activists and elected officials that didn’t occur a decade earlier. It required a broader movement, a better policy and firmer grasp of what it would take to win in Washington.

And it required a campaign.

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.

Tom Perriello speaks

Former Rep. Tom Perriello sacrificed his legislative career in part over his efforts to pass a climate change bill. | Molly Riley/AP Photo

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.”

In the weeks and months after those disastrous 2010 midterms, environmental activists and the lawmakers most invested in climate legislation met to discuss in detail what had gone wrong. They quickly realized that their message was out of step with voters’ economic concerns. Worse than that, they — the supposedly motivated party — had been vastly outmanned and outspent.

With unemployment close to 10 percent in 2009 and 2010, Americans were in no mood to look kindly on any policy measure that might have resulted in higher utility bills or gas prices. And climate change was not high on the list of voters’ top concerns. The American Petroleum Institute and U.S. Chamber of Commerce poured millions into ad campaigns, websites and other earned media efforts to convince the public that the Waxman-Markey legislation amounted to a tax that would kill thousands of jobs.

Meanwhile, oil and gas companies had spent more than $500 million during the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency lobbying against any energy legislation, according to an OpenSecrets analysis. Green groups like the League of Conservation Voters spent virtually nothing by comparison — less than $20 million combined in 2010.

Then there was the legislation itself, an extraordinarily complex 1400-page bill produced over six months to create a cap-and-trade system for heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions. The idea was to incorporate a policy idea — cap and trade — that once drew expressions of approval from leading Republicans as a market-based approach to addressing global warming. It was a responsible compromise, but it was devilishly hard to understand, let alone sell.

John Podesta speaks

John Podesta, former CEO of the Center for American Progres, described past climate messaging as “overly technical, overly complicated, hard to explain and sell.” | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

“The horse-trading was on the surface, which people didn’t like, so it was easily attacked … and the upside was hard to see,” complained John Podesta, who at the time was the CEO of the Center for American Progress. “We way too much let the policy nerds on the outside control this process. We didn’t have a product that you could sell to the public. It would have worked probably. But it was really overly technical, overly complicated, hard to explain and sell.”

It was clear from environmental groups’ postmortems that climate policy and messaging needed a makeover, that the doomsday warnings and punitive aspects of taxing carbon were choking off public support for action. But more than anything, they needed money.

A small group of donors agreed then that they would double down on climate and focus more on winning the elections that, over time, would help them win the policy fight.

“Our groups were good at policy, science and litigation. But if they were going to be good politically, they had to be good at lobbying, advocacy and politics,” explained Kathleen Welch, a donor adviser who helped lead those new climate initiatives. “It was individual donors who said we need a new kind of money and investment to build up the clout of the movement. It started with just a few people. They didn’t do politics but they knew they had to do politics to win.”

The early efforts were somewhat scattershot. Earlier in the 2010 election cycle, the League of Conservation Voters had launched a super PAC, “LCV Victory Fund,” and an online donation platform, Give Green, to direct support from climate-focused donors to candidates pledging to focus on the issue. But they didn’t raise enough to move many votes.

Then, in 2011, New York’s billionaire mayor, Mike Bloomberg, committed $50 million through his Bloomberg Philanthropies to the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign, enabling a massive scaling up of the group’s initiative to phase out the nation’s coal plants. Meanwhile, activists across the country channeled their frustration into civil disobedience in protests over the Keystone XL and Dakota access pipelines.

These initiatives also fell against a backdrop of intensifying extreme weather events that, over the course of the decade to come, would clarify the dark and suddenly immediate reality of climate change for a vast majority of Americans. In the final weeks of the 2012 election, Hurricane Sandy — then the largest Atlantic hurricane on record — devastated the East Coast. Obama, in the final week of a difficult reelection campaign, toured the damage in New Jersey with Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Their physical embrace amid the wreckage became the definitive image of the campaign’s final days, casting Obama in a bipartisan, empathic light that many analysts pointed to as pivotal.

Obama’s reelection paved the way for the first meaningful efforts by the federal government to respond to climate change. In June 2013, Obama released a Climate Action Plan that set reducing carbon emissions as its primary goal. In November, he signed an executive order creating a Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience to help local communities and Washington policymakers prepare for the impact of extreme weather.

At that point, Washington was still behind several states already taking action on their own. Most notably, California had updated its clean car emissions standards, already the most stringent in the nation and followed by more than a dozen states, in 2012 under Gov. Jerry Brown. But leaders in other states shared his agenda.

Gavin Newsom is seen reflected in the window of a hybrid taxi cab.

California updated its clean car emissions standards, already the most stringent in the nation and followed by more than a dozen states, in 2012. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Elected governor of Colorado in 2006, Bill Ritter had centered his campaign around the promise of what he called the “new energy economy,” even cutting ads showing him in the shadow of hulking wind turbines. Over his four years at the helm, the Democrat tripled the state’s renewable energy standard from 10 to 30 percent by 2020 and enlisting the state’s natural gas industry as allies in combating climate change by making them the beneficiaries of a transition away from coal, a policy enshrined in a 2010 law.

By 2014, Colorado would be generating 18 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, up from essentially zero when Ritter took office. And more recently, as renewable energy has become more affordable and popular, and as additional research has underlined the high carbon impact of natural gas, the Democrats who control the state capitol in Denver have enacted even tougher laws, no longer as dependent on the industry as a political ally.

In Washington state, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee was pursuing a similar vision of an economic transition driven by new energy, which he had outlined in a prescient book he wrote in 2009. After being elected governor in 2012, Inslee directed $40 million from the state budget to a new clean energy fund that invested in new technologies that could reduce emissions, cut energy costs and create jobs. Setting a goal of putting 50,000 electric vehicles on his state’s roads by 2020, Inslee signed legislation to incentivize EV ownership and to build out the state’s infrastructure of charging stations.

In 2015, Obama unveiled the Clean Power Plan, a federal push for a transition away from coal that gave climate activists a positive cause to rally around. Of course, rallying against fossil-fuel infrastructure continued to galvanize activists, who took satisfaction that same year when Obama, nearing the end of his term, decided to block the Keystone XL pipeline. At year’s end, Obama heralded what would become his most significant accomplishment on climate, the framework for the Paris Climate Accord that would be ratified by 196 countries.

“I believe this moment can be a turning point for the world,” Obama said in a December speech after cementing the agreement, under which nations would set individual goals in a collective effort to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. “We’ve shown that the world has both the will and the ability to take on this challenge.”

Donald Trump’s election some 11 months later shattered the sense of progress held by many working for climate action and left leaders in other capitals newly skeptical about whether the new government in Washington would stick to the past administration’s commitments. It became clear from Trump’s first moments in office that he would not. With executive orders, Trump upended much of Obama’s regulatory regime. And in June 2017, he announced that he would be following through on his campaign promise to withdraw the U.S. from its commitment under the Paris agreement.

“We said, ‘Shit, what do we do now?‘” said Karpinski, LCV’s president. “And the answer was to go back to the states.” The organization’s long-vacant job overseeing campaigns, Karpinski decided, needed to finally be filled. He convinced Pete Maysmith, who’d spent years running the group’s Colorado operation, to move to Washington and take it on.

“We just needed more political muscle,” Maysmith recalled. “We needed to take a growing, more diversified movement and marry that with politics, raising more money and winning elections.”

Trump’s rollback of Obama’s entire climate agenda proved to be a galvanizing event, as elected officials, organizations, donors and activists recognized the importance of finding new ways to affect change not in concert with an administration but in spite of one.

Bloomberg, no longer the mayor of New York City, responded to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accords almost immediately, rallying governors, mayors, business leaders and academic institutions to maintain their carbon reduction commitments under the climate pact.

“Americans will honor and fulfill the Paris Agreement by leading from the bottom up — and there isn’t anything Washington can do to stop us,” Bloomberg declared as he announced he was putting $15 million behind the effort.

That fall, LCV directed its efforts toward the off-year governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey. The organization and its 30 state affiliates formalized an agreement to more closely align their efforts and launched a pilot program in New Jersey aiming to make climate action a top issue in the governor’s race there, where Democrat Phil Murphy romped to victory.

As attention shifted to the 2018 midterms, the side-by-side reality of extreme weather getting worse and a federal administration intent on setting climate progress back animated a new generation of activists. The Sunrise Movement was founded in 2018, organizing rallies, marches and more activism online that made the passion young people had for climate more visible to elected officials and the public. Environmental justice groups, who had problems with Obama’s Clean Power Plan and what they saw as unintended consequences that would hurt marginalized communities, pushed LCV, the Sierra Club and other Big Green groups for more input on policy, bringing a new, largely urban constituency into the ranks of the movement. Rev. Lennox Yearwood, the president of the Hip Hop Caucus, led efforts to bring communities of color into the climate movement, framing the issue as a matter of civil rights.

Meanwhile, a new generation of office-seekers made their case to voters with newfound conviction about the importance — and political upside — of climate action. Mike Levin, an environmental attorney in San Diego, made climate issues the centerpiece of his campaign challenging incumbent Rep. Darrell Issa. At a candidate forum, Levin confronted Issa, mentioning that he’d sent the lawmaker a book, Climate Change for Beginners, and attacking the Republican’s call for building more natural gas plants as “an unfathomable proposal” for his coastal district.

“I remember a 2017 article about my race and the headline was, ‘Democrat candidate gambles on climate change,’” Levin recalled. “I didn’t think it was gambling.”

Ignoring Washington’s consultant class, Levin went with “clean energy advocate” for his ballot title, the short description that goes alongside the candidate’s name. After Issa withdrew, Levin finished second in a 16-candidate primary to advance to the general election and, ultimately, won the seat in November.

“You have to be authentic about your background,” he said. “For me, with two young kids, thinking about their future and the habitability of our planet, it led to running. And the previous administration had policies that were totally contrary to what I believed was necessary.”

Appointed in late 2017 to fill former Sen. Al Franken’s seat after Democratic colleagues forced his ouster over allegations of sexual misconduct, Sen. Tina Smith had to run in a special election the following year to secure a full six-year term. Like Levin, she made climate change a focus. Her campaign website blasted Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate treaty as “out of touch” and vowed to “fight back against policies that threaten our environment.”

Connecting the issue of combating climate change with economic opportunity, suddenly a strategic imperative for Democrats, was a big part of Smith’s message. “I brought a real passion around climate and energy policy based in part on how important clean energy has been to Minnesota’s economy,” Smith said.

“I talked about it nonstop on the trail. So much of the previous conversation around climate went like: ‘everything is horrible,’” she said. “That kind of message is more terrifying than motivating. But when you have an overall message around saving people money on electric bills and energy independence, it’s a positive message so it’s easy to run on. You’re no longer telling people you’re going to have to sacrifice and pay way more for your energy.”

LCV spent $80 million in the 2018 cycle, the organization’s largest-ever campaign effort, backing candidates in competitive races who were clear about their willingness to fight for action on climate. After she won, Smith in 2019 introduced legislation for a clean-electricity standard that aimed to reduce emissions from the sector by almost 80 percent by 2035.

In Podesta’s eyes, this was when the political maturation of the climate movement started to become clearer as successful efforts at the state level began to generate more momentum nationally.

“A positive politics is coming from all that. People are out there campaigning on this, pushing forward on it and they’re winning,” he said. “You see it spreading in the states. You can see that you can sell this and people are buying it.”

In the 2018 class of Democratic freshmen, one star shined brighter than the rest. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took office in January 2019 at 29 after knocking out a party stalwart, former Rep. Joe Crowley, in a primary. Capturing grassroots support with a populist message drawing on her post-college experience eking out a living as a bartender, “AOC,” as she became instantly known, gave voice to a new generation’s frustration with the powers that be, calling for long overdue action in a number of areas: gun safety, economic fairness, justice reform and climate.

Just days after the election, Ocasio-Cortez joined 150 youth activists from The Sunrise Movement at a sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol Hill office where they demanded that the newly elected Democratic majority introduce legislation on climate. Soon after the new Congress got to work, Pelosi followed through on her promise to create the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis to be chaired by Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.).

Now in the Senate, Markey, years removed from the defeat of his first stab at climate legislation, turned to the young upstart as a partner in the new effort to try again. After hashing out the details of their proposal at a lunch shortly after the 2018 election, the unlikely duo introduced the “Green New Deal” on Feb. 7, 2019. The plan for an economic mobilization in the decade ahead to phase out fossil fuels and update the nation’s infrastructure was derided by Republicans, and even dismissed by Pelosi at one point as “the green dream, or whatever they call it.” But progressives, and the young activists fueling the Sunrise Movement, were galvanized by the ambitious call to arms.

“In 2009, when [former Rep.] Henry Waxman and I initiated a full scale attempt to pass a comprehensive bill, there still was not a well-organized grassroots movement in the U.S. to push for a comprehensive climate solution,” Markey said. The Green New Deal was their effort to create a plan “around which we could build a movement.”

Whether they fully agreed with the Green New Deal as Markey and AOC had drawn it up, Democrats were increasingly aware of the need to act — not solely for political reasons but for existential ones. In 2018, a new report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that, without immediate and far-reaching action by governments, the planet was on pace to reach the crucial threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by as early as 2030, increasing the risk of extreme drought, wildfires, floods and food shortages for hundreds of millions of people. That stark report alarmed policymakers, who’d committed under the Paris accord to a goal of keeping global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius.

“That snapped everybody into saying you can’t stabilize the atmosphere unless you go to net zero,” Podesta said. “There was a profound shift of technology, innovation and ambition that was maybe unnoticed in the public. But among the people who are working on this, it becomes: ‘Okay, we’ve got to go to net zero.‘”

But Podesta was also thinking in terms of politics. After the 2018 election, a clear rebuke of Trump and the GOP, the long awaited opportunity for Democrats to finally act on climate seemed to be drawing near.

Podesta, then a board member at the Center for American Progress and columnist for The Washington Post, called Lori Lodes, an experienced labor operative who’d worked a decade earlier to shift the politics around healthcare. Now the director of corporate communications for Apple, she was living in the Bay Area.

“He said we need you back to run a new climate project,” Lodes recalled. “He was looking around corners and saw that 2020 was going to be our chance, that that’s when the window was going to open. He knew we could take advantage quickly or would lose our shot until 2030 and that would be too late.”

Lodes said yes. She moved back to DC in February 2020 — just weeks before the pandemic brought the country and the campaign to a standstill — to launch Climate Power, a new strategic communications and paid-media operation founded by CAP, LCV and the Sierra Club. It was intended to be a short-term gig, its efforts focused on an audience of one.

“Obama had run on healthcare,” Lodes said. “We needed to make sure Biden ran on climate.”

After falling flat in Iowa and New Hampshire, Joe Biden had emerged as the Democratic nominee after a decisive win in South Carolina helped coalesce support around him as the party’s best shot to defeat Trump. In the months leading up to the primary, climate change had been a frequent area of focus for the Democratic hopefuls on the debate stage.

Inslee, mounting a long-shot bid for the nomination, proposed doing an entire debate on the subject, a request the DNC ignored. But CNN did host a seven-hour climate town hall. Four years after an election in which climate change was ignored completely in the three general-election debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton, Democrats were vying to showcase their ambitious plans to curb carbon emissions.

Part of the impetus came from donors. Kathleen Welch, the donor adviser who’d been organizing a small group of climate-focused donors for several years, pulled together several “climate conversations” where presidential aspirants met with a handful of potential benefactors from both coasts to discuss how they planned to address the issue. And the previous election cycle had just shown, perhaps for the first time, that climate activism had a political upside.

The 2018 midterms were “the first time it became clear that running on climate was good politics and good policy,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, the head of LCV’s legislative affairs operation. “And that led to the race to the top in 2020 among the Democratic presidential candidates.”

Not surprisingly, Inslee’s “net zero” plan — which called for a zero-emissions, zero-carbon energy grid by 2030 — was the most ambitious. He pointed to his efforts in Washington state, vowing to nationalize initiatives to close coal plants, improve EV infrastructure, improve battery technology and require new buildings to be more energy efficient. More surprising, perhaps, was how quickly his primary rivals adopted his ideas.

“We all raised our ambition,” Inslee recalled in an interview. “I think my candidacy did help raise the bar on what we expected Democrats to advocate for. But it was Joe Biden who pushed this right to the top and made it happen and I give him a huge amount of credit for it.”

As the broader public’s attitudes on climate started to shift in response to the new intensity and frequency of hurricanes, wildfires and drought, Democrats became almost entirely convinced of the need for action. A Pew survey from February 2020 showed that 94 percent of Democratic primary voters viewed climate change as at least a moderately big problem for the country.

On April 9, amid the pandemic lockdown, as the presumptive nominee was already campaigning mostly from his Wilmington home, Lodes and Podesta logged onto Zoom for their first briefing with the Biden campaign’s climate team, including Stef Feldman and Ali Zaidi. Andrew Baumann, Climate Power’s pollster, came prepared with data aimed at convincing Biden’s team that running on climate would broaden his appeal not just with young people but also the suburban women viewed as critical to winning the White House.

Biden’s arm, it turned out, didn’t need much twisting. And his big picture view of climate policy included Democratic constituencies that didn’t have any involvement in the Waxman-Markey effort a decade earlier: labor unions and environmental justice groups, which environmental groups had been working to incorporate in the intervening years.

Shortly after securing the nomination, Biden sat on his Wilmington deck in a white polo shirt and spoke via Zoom with Lonnie Stephenson, then the president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. After Stephenson described the gap in hourly wages for workers in the solar and wind industries and other parts of the energy sector, Biden suggested including a prevailing wage requirement into any potential renewable energy tax credit.

Roxanne Brown, a vice president with United Steelworkers, recalled how a decade ago, her union’s members had little faith in a new energy future. “You would talk to our members about green jobs and they’d say, ‘that doesn’t mean me,’” she said. “It wasn’t tangible at that point. Outside of some very specific sectors, it was hard for people to see themselves. Now it’s become more clear that all these clean-tech industries require stuff: copper mined for EVs, glass and aluminum for solar…and our members are in all of those sectors. They know now that industries may change, but they will still be there.”

Biden’s credibility with organized labor helped solidify their alliance with the environmental groups around climate legislation; and the policy ideas they suggested to him during the 2020 campaign ended up as part of the policy he would enact as president.

Toward the end of the primary, Biden sat for another Zoom with LCV’s Karpinski and a few others involved in determining which candidate the organization would endorse. When they asked him about “fenceline communities,” Biden talked about his own childhood in Claymont, Del.

“Fenceline communities like the one I grew up in?” he responded. He proceeded to describe the oil sheen mixed with winter freeze on the windshield of his mother’s car as a means of relating his experience in a low-income, industrial community plagued by poor air quality. Biden seemed to get it. But Lodes and other activists continued their work to convince him and campaign brass to articulate the climate plans being discussed on Zoom to the public.

Long-time aides like Mike Donilon, who’d helped Biden get buy-in from labor to reframe climate as an economic imperative, were eager to lean in. Campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon, fresh off a stint running Beto O’Rourke’s primary campaign, also believed in the power of the issue as a way to galvanize younger voters. And the data showed it.

“There’s a tendency for advocacy organizations to cock up polls that show whatever you want them to think, but we were able to share information that was in fact credible,” said Podesta, who was involved in many of those conversations. “There was very strong support for this investment-led program. If you just look at Democrats, it’s a very high priority. But if you look at independents, there’s no downside. Maybe it’s not as much of a priority, but there’s no downside.”

Around the same time, major climate donors were getting more serious about their efforts. Led by Nat Simons, Larry Linden, Lise Strickler and Mark Gallogly, they formed a group called “Climate Leaders for Biden.” Simons, Matt Rogers and Tom Steyer hosted the group’s first fundraiser in June and raised $4 million.

By the end of the campaign, the group had swelled to nearly 100 donors and brought in $17 million, while also delivering resources to LCV, Climate Power and other groups running TV ads and get out the vote operations in several states.

“That was a game changer in terms of how climate donors were seen but also in how the campaigns the movement ran were funded,” Welch said.

The year 2020 was a dismal, deeply disorienting time marked by the onset of a once-in-a-century pandemic and violent uprisings in response to the racial injustice embedded in the nation’s fabric. And as the deeply polarizing and increasingly vulnerable president neared Election Day’s judgment, the country was on fire. Large swaths of the parched American west were beset with wildfires. And in one of the more heavy-handed metaphors Mother Nature has ever provided, a category 4 hurricane barreled toward the Louisiana coast just as Trump was set to deliver his acceptance speech on the final night of a hastily-organized Republican National Convention in Washington, D.C. But the storm’s scheduled landfall did not compel Trump to postpone his remarks from the Rose Garden. Nor did any of the extreme weather events induce him to say a word about climate change.

As the fires raged on up and down the West Coast, Lodes’s team at Climate Power was bombarding reporters with press releases noting that it had been 49 days since Trump said something about climate. Then 50. Then 51. Finally, on Sept. 11, the Washington Post published a story titled, “Trump isn’t talking about the wildfires in Oregon, California and Washington.” The New York Times followed suit. At the same time, Lodes had been urging Biden’s aides to seize the mantle on climate as his opponent dithered.

“We’d been pushing Biden to see that this is an opportunity, saying basically ‘If Trump’s not going to lead, you can,’” she said. The following week, when Trump begrudgingly announced plans to travel to California to tour burn zones with Gov. Gavin Newsom, Biden was ready to go.

As Trump’s Air Force One descended through smoky skies into Sacramento, Biden strode to an outdoor podium at the Delaware Museum of Natural History and eviscerated the president for climate denialism that, he argued, was putting people’s lives and livelihoods at risk.

“If we have four more years of Trump’s climate denial, how many suburbs will be burned in wildfires, how many suburban neighborhoods will be flooded out, how many suburbs will be blown away in superstorms?” Biden asked during a week two dozen people had just perished in fires out west. “If you give a climate arsonist four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised if we have more of America ablaze? If you give a climate denier four more years in the White House, why would anybody be surprised when more of America is under water?”

It was, by leaps and bounds, the strongest speech Biden had ever delivered on climate. Biden’s comments offered a sharp contrast with Trump, who blamed state officials for improperly managing the floors of forests that were actually maintained by the federal government and scoffed at the scientific consensus that climate change was creating the conditions for more extreme weather events.

“It will start getting cooler,” Trump predicted. “Just watch. I don’t think science knows, actually.”

Beyond delivering the “split-screen” headlines his campaign had hoped for, Biden’s speech did something else, something Lodes and other climate activists found extraordinary. In connecting Trump’s climate denial to his mismanagement of the pandemic, the economy and racial justice matters, Biden was making a larger point about leadership and competence. But by grouping climate change alongside three other pressing national issues, a presidential candidate had just placed climate change, for the first time ever, at the center of their campaign.

Climate Power wasn’t intended to exist beyond the 2020 election. But the calculation for Podesta and Lodes changed after Biden’s victory and, two months later, the shocking Democratic sweep of two January runoffs in Georgia that gave the party control of the Senate. Suddenly, the opportunity to pass major climate legislation was right in front of them. But convincing the new president and Democratic leaders to prioritize the issue amid the ongoing pandemic, they realized, would continue to be a fight.

Days before the inauguration, Climate Power ran a full-page ad in The New York Times featuring more than 100 signatories — CEOs like Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Bill Ford of Ford, philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs and entertainers including Natalie Portman and Questlove — demanding action on climate. And the group went up on the television airwaves in Washington, D.C. with an ad carrying that same message. Their ads ran on cable news channels in the capital every day for more than a year.

“Our audience at that moment, and from there on, was one person: Joe Biden,” Lodes said. A week after his swearing in, Biden signed several executive orders on climate, directing his government to make emissions reduction a priority in every area — a solid start, as far as activists were concerned, but no reason to let up on their push for sweeping legislative action.

“We were going to make the case every day that this was something that had to get done,” Lodes said. “And for him to see himself as the potential hero of the story.”

At the same time, LCV was running similar, local ads aimed at Democratic members of Congress, showing them how to frame the need for climate action as an economic opportunity — and to see that the issue was a political winner. In fact, many of the policies had already been written by lawmakers on House and Senate committees. In part due to the work of environmental groups over the preceding decade, many of the Democrats who made up the new Congress were already prepared to go big on climate.

One of them, however, was not. After the rapid passage of a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package less than two months into Biden’s presidency, optimism soared about what else might be possible. But Sen. Joe Manchin, perhaps the only Democrat on the planet capable of winning a Senate seat in West Virginia, was reluctant to pass additional legislation using the budget reconciliation process that requires just 50 votes.

While Manchin and a bipartisan group of negotiators succeeded in reaching agreement on infrastructure, authoring a $1.2 trillion bill capable of getting the 60 votes needed to pass it through regular order, Democrats knew that a climate package would have to be part of a second, more partisan spending bill chock full of more partisan priorities: a child tax credit, paid family leave, subsidies for elder care and childcare, lower prescription drug costs and more.

Biden and House Democrats tried to delay a House vote on the Senate-approved infrastructure package until the Senate passed the Democrats’ spending bill. But with that bill stalled, pressure from Manchin and other moderates forced the White House to abandon that strategy. As the president celebrated the infrastructure bill’s passage, the coalition pushing for climate legislation remained determined that, eventually, it would get done — even after losing the biggest point of leverage they had over Manchin, a former coal executive from a coal state.

Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, left, D-Mass., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., debate.

Sen. Ed Markey won his primary over a much younger challenger, Joe Kennedy, in 2020 after making climate change his top issue. | WBZ-TV via AP

“This was clearly an issue that had to be dealt with in 2021-22, because it was a central part of the coalition Biden and Democrats used to win,” said Markey, who’d won his own primary over a much younger challenger, Joe Kennedy, in 2020 after making climate change his top issue. “In 2016, the political class still didn’t see climate as a top tier issue. There were no questions about it in the three presidential debates. By 2020, that had changed.”

In his primary, Markey had challenged Kennedy to a debate on climate change the day the former congressman announced his Senate bid. A decade after the legislation bearing his name failed to receive a Senate vote, his swift dispatching of the young challenger — one with the name Kennedy, no less — showed how the politics of the issue had shifted. “I won 18-34 year-olds 71-29,” Markey recalled. “My campaign showed that this was no longer an electoral liability but an electoral necessity.”

Manchin’s politics in West Virginia, however, were far different than his colleagues. And after months of inaction, the lawmaker had only made clear to the reporters hounding him in hallways what he wouldn’t support. And after a White House statement in December blaming him for the bill’s delay, an incensed Manchin went on Fox News and declared the bill dead. Biden, stung by the unexpected gut punch, expressed guarded optimism in January that “chunks” of the original “Build Back Better” bill — the things Manchin was open to — could still be salvaged. But at the time, no one was talking.

And another crisis moved to the fore.

Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine was met with far-reaching economic sanctions by the U.S. and its NATO allies. Germany quickly canceled its controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would have delivered more Russian oil to Europe. In the months that followed, as gas prices and inflation rose, Manchin’s aversion to a major spending package only grew. But the environmental groups, which had continued to push for climate action by holding press conferences and pumping out new statements from business leaders and analyses about the positive economic impacts, sensed an opening.

Just days after the war began, Lodes sent a memo to the White House urging Biden to go on offense, not for the legislation itself but the cause of climate action as critical to the broader imperative of energy security. The group’s TV ads shifted from highlighting the job creation aspects of clean energy investments to explaining how they would lessen Americans’ dependence on oil and gas reserves controlled by Russian President Vladimir Putin and other autocrats leveraging energy as a weapon.

As activists encouraged Biden and other top Democrats not to let the fossil-fuel industry define the terms of the debate with calls for expanding oil and gas production, they were also summoning Fortune 500 executives, former Pentagon brass and other prominent activists to lean on the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress.

“There was a concerted campaign to get influential voices in the right ears of all of the people, to make this something they really felt had to get done,” Lodes said.

As Manchin continued to hold out, some colleagues laid down their own markers. In June, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) responded to news that the White House could nix more climate provisions from the spending bill to appease the West Virginian by throwing down a gauntlet of sorts, tweeting that “an infrastructure package that goes light on climate and clean energy should not count on every Democratic vote.” Others followed with “No climate, no deal” messages of their own.

Environmental groups, however, took a more delicate approach with Manchin. In a notable show of strategic restraint, neither LCV or Climate Power ran TV ads in West Virginia, leaving it to labor leaders from his home state and like-minded lawmakers to nudge him along toward a deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“You had LCV, Climate Power, and organized labor that were for the first time working in coalition, cooperating at multiple levels and sustaining their effort over many months to keep the attention and focus on getting it done,” Smith said. “It gives you the power to say ‘I know I’m going to be backed up when I say ‘no climate, no deal.’”

But in the second week of July, negotiations fell apart for what seemed like the final time. Following a report showing inflation at 9.1 percent, Manchin informed his Democratic colleagues that he couldn’t support the energy and climate provisions of an already slimmed down spending package. For Schumer, who thought they were close to a deal, it was a devastating moment: the last, best window for the U.S. to take meaningful enough action on climate seemed to have just closed.

Then, within just hours, the entirety of the climate movement took Manchin to the woodshed, as did his Senate colleagues.

“This is bullshit,” Smith tweeted. Heinrich tweeted that “Manchin’s refusal to act is infuriating” and suggested he be stripped of his role chairing the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In less than 24 hours, the inside details of how he abruptly ended talks with Schumer made their way into the country’s most-read newspapers.

“How One Senator Doomed the Democrats’ Climate Plan” screamed a New York Times headline, and the story laid all the recriminations bare. Podesta, after months of back and forths with Manchin, let it rip in the article, wondering why the lawmaker “would choose as his legacy to be the one man who single-handedly doomed humanity.” Leah Stokes, a climate adviser to House Democrats, lamented how the bill’s failure would prevent the U.S. from achieving its climate goals and, similarly, didn’t hold back in putting a looming global environmental catastrophe on Manchin’s back. “I honestly don’t know how he is going to look his own grandchildren in the eyes,” she said.

That story ran on Friday, July 15. On Monday morning, as the White House was arranging a Biden event on climate change in Massachusetts amid rising calls from aggrieved Democrats urging him to declare a climate emergency, Manchin quietly went back to Schumer and asked to resume talks. For 10 days, the two met in a secret basement office in the Capitol. Manchin, written off finally by many of his colleagues and the administration, demanded that no one know that negotiations on climate provisions had resumed.

“He was probably surprised by how much the focus on him being the linchpin toward a world spiraling out of control was really there, and it was true,” Podesta said. “The stakes were accurate. This wasn’t like we can come back next year and work on this again. This was a critical moment. This was the last chance to get the U.S. back in a leadership position and on track to do what it needed to do and the weight of that all fell on him.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. speaks to then-Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

For 10 days, Manchin (right) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (left) met in a secret basement office the leader has in the Capitol to resume negotiations on climate provisions. | Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

While the secret basement meetings were occurring, the same activists who’d flamed Manchin in the press were organizing a final pressure campaign aimed at reviving the legislation. Collin O’Mara, the director of the National Wildlife Federation, orchestrated much of the direct outreach, which included a call from Bill Gates, who was backing a battery startup in Manchin’s home state, Larry Summers and a number of energy executives — all working to allay the lawmaker’s anxieties about rising inflation.

Nonetheless, the climate activists who’d worked for years to get to this moment felt pessimistic about any chance for a deal. In fact, on the morning of July 27, Podesta, Lodes, Karpinski and others were discussing on their daily 8 a.m. call how to choreograph their defeat and whether there was more to do just to show donors and other activists how hard they had fought.

When Manchin and Schumer announced an agreement hours later, the legislation had been re-christened “The Inflation Reduction Act.” It included $369 billion to combat climate change, primarily through a number of tax incentives aimed at speeding up the transition to renewable energy. The early involvement of unions led to project labor agreements and Buy American requirements that helped get Manchin on board.

The secrecy of the final round of talks and the apparent finality of a public pressure campaign also shifted the optics, allowing the West Virginian to appear, in the end, not as though he was responding to pressure from Democratic constituencies but as the architect of a landmark bill aimed at lowering costs. But many people on Capitol Hill recognized that it was the immense pressure leveraged by a bigger, stronger environmental movement — and the increasing public salience of the issue itself — that pushed him back to the negotiating table.

“It wasn’t just the political environment, because this was not a political choice of [Manchin’s],” Schumer recalled in an interview. “It was the weight of the issue, the substantive environment, that our globe is really at stake. The whole world as we know it is at stake. The urgency, the passion, the anxiety that accompanied this issue, both politically and substantively, was greater than any other issue.”

Most of the enmity Democrats felt toward Manchin dissipated immediately after the breakthrough had been announced. The biggest climate package in U.S. history was at hand. With the midterms months away, the political narrative was about to shift from one of missed opportunities to a story of remarkable legislative productivity by a president and party with razor-thin congressional majorities.

On the day of the final Senate vote on the Inflation Reduction Act, Manchin found himself next to Smith in the lawmakers’ private dining room. “‘This is bullshit,’ ” he said softly. “Tina, I didn’t know you talked like that.”

It was a moment of comity, aimed at easing tensions. But Manchin was also letting it slip that he’d felt the pressure and frustration from his climate-focused colleagues. After a year of tortured negotiations, the swift passage of the bill by the Senate and then the House was almost an afterthought. But it also clarified the degree to which, unlike 10 years earlier, support for climate action now spanned the entire Democratic caucus, from Bernie Sanders to Manchin in the Senate, from AOC and the progressive caucus to House moderates like Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.).

After a year of expressing skepticism about the legislation, Manchin was suddenly the new law’s biggest public cheerleader. The Sunday after the initial deal was announced, he did the “full Ginsburg,” appearing on all five major morning politics shows to tout the package. While Democrats had to accept a somewhat reduced climate package to secure his vote, Manchin served as a helpful avatar for the final bill. This was no liberal pipe dream pushed through by progressives.

Climate Power, LCV and The Sierra Club finally had legislation to celebrate — and proof of what can happen by electing climate champions. For the first time, they had an affirmative, tangible case to compel voters to turn out. And the steady investments by activist groups in polling and field staff gave them a political operation capable of capitalizing on their long-sought legislative success.

LCV Victory Fund and Climate Power funneled $15 million into a sophisticated targeting project unlike anything they’d ever undertaken before. They hired BlueLabs Analytics to mine voter data to hone in on 2 million Biden voters in key states whose participation in the midterms was no sure thing but who could likely be compelled to vote by a pro-climate message. Just before Labor Day, they launched a 10-week program targeting those voters with digital ads and mailers, focus group-testing messages and fine-tuning and updating the material as Election Day drew closer.

At the same time, LCV had blanketed Capitol Hill, home to many members of Congress, and swing districts across the country with yard and window signs for businesses and homes demanding “Climate Action Now.” And they coordinated with their state operations to ensure that volunteers showed up at every town hall event in targeted races to ask questions about — and show support for — climate action.

“This was, finally, our message playing in surround sound,” said Maysmith, who headed the effort for LCV. “Lawmakers were hearing and feeling that this is now a top issue and that there’s broad support for climate.”

Biden, despite his party’s consultant class wringing its hands about him not being more vociferous about abortion or the economy, had chosen to focus his midterm campaign pitch on his top legislative accomplishments, including climate action. And frontline Democrats nationwide were leaning in. Gabe Vasquez, a conservationist, emphasized his own work on environmental matters in his successful run for a competitive New Mexico House seat. Levin again won reelection in San Diego, where LCV ran a TV spot featuring a local solar-industry worker crediting the congressman and Democrats for investing in renewables. Spanberger, one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country, ran ads touting the climate provisions of the IRA and held on to her seat.

In Michigan, the heart of the nation’s auto industry, Democrats campaigned on their investments in electric vehicles — Pelosi traveled to Elissa Slotkin’s district for an October event at a battery plant touting the EV provisions in the IRA — and won up and down the ticket. In Colorado’s brand new and extremely competitive House district, Yadira Caraveo eked out a win over Barbara Kirkmeyer, who LCV went after in TV ads highlighting her close ties to an oil-and-gas industry they said was having a negative impact on children’s health.

While Republicans won the House in the end, their four-seat majority was far slimmer than expected. In swing races across the country, many vulnerable Democrats held on. And on the Senate side, every targeted Democratic incumbent won, allowing the party to increase its majority from 50 to 51.

In the closest contest, Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s campaign pummeled GOP challenger Adam Laxalt with television ads highlighting his ties to Big Oil at a moment when the state had the highest gas prices in the country, and contrasting that with her support for the state’s solar industry and the new jobs it was creating.

Republicans mostly steered clear of the issue. GOP candidates attacked Democrats for high inflation and spending, referring to big-ticket legislation mainly by its price tag alone. They mostly ignored the subject of climate change and energy. But in a notable change, they were far quieter about trumpeting their support for fossil fuels, the “drill, baby, drill” message that had won the day in previous campaigns. In a final analysis of 2022 campaign ads by AdImpact, less than 5 percent of GOP ads nationwide focused on energy and climate, a huge drop from a decade earlier.

As the political calendar turns to 2024, the coalition that shifted the politics of climate is revving up again.

Podesta’s work to implement the IRA’s climate provisions will be critical as the administration looks to avoid missteps that could erode support for clean energy. Activists continue to push the White House, which frustrated activists in March by approving Alaska’s Willow pipeline project, to expand on executive actions that will protect natural resources and hasten the broader transition away from fossil fuels. And operatives and donors are gearing up for a long campaign, determined to continue to support Biden and Democrats up and down the ballot. A Republican president, they fear, or a Congress fully controlled by the GOP, could reverse what they’ve done.

But there are also faint glimmers of hope that environmental activists, having united Democrats around climate action, can conquer the final frontier — that Republicans themselves will evolve on the issue. The first new solar-panel manufacturing plant that was announced just weeks after the IRA passed was to be built in northern Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has aggressively courted renewable energy, battery and automotive companies to the state.

Last month, the Korean solar conglomerate QCells announced its own $2.5 billion investment in Georgia to expand its solar-panel manufacturing plant in Dalton and build a new facility in Cartersville, about 50 miles northwest of Atlanta. The lawmaker representing that area happens to be a Republican who once spoke of global warming as “healthy” for the planet. But when asked about the announcement, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene couldn’t help but acknowledge the upsides: “We’re excited to have jobs,” she said.

( Information from was used in this report. Also if you have any problem of this article or if you need to remove this articles, please email here and we will delete this immediately. [email protected] )

Share to...