The urgency of the climate crisis demands that countries act decisively to transition away from fossil fuels, but time is short, with this the make-or-break decade to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Success will come only with durable governing majorities devoted to climate action – in the US and the world’s other large emitters.

On 16 August 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) into law. The bill’s name was bestowed to fit the politics of the moment, with voters’ attention seized by soaring prices for food and gasoline. However, the IRA will be remembered as the US’s largest investment in clean energy by far: $369bn, at least four-times larger than any other previous funding package approved by Congress.

The IRA’s path to Biden’s desk was famously, maddeningly, fraught, with the bill’s fate subject to the daily whims of one very powerful Democratic senator, Joe Manchin. In the end, the bill passed – by the slimmest of margins – with not a single Republican vote.

So, for now, the Democrats are the party of climate action at the national level in the US. Which means that the future of climate action in the US, during the critical window of time that remains to act, rests on Democrats electing majorities in Congress and holding onto the presidency. The world cannot afford another four-year climate denial detour under Donald Trump.

Joe Biden and the rest of the Democratic Party, then, must campaign and win on a platform that persuades voters that investing in the clean energy economy is good for their families and the country.

Inflation Reduction Act: voters are sceptical

Given this political imperative, Joe Biden’s political advisors should heed a recent survey conducted jointly by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. Released last week, the survey found that two-thirds of registered voters have heard at least “a little” about the IRA.

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However, when asked to offer an association with the IRA, the most common response was “skepticism”. Just four in ten respondents think the IRA will increase clean energy innovation. Just 34% of voters think the IRA will reduce global warming, 24% think it will reduce inflation, 21% think it will reduce power outages and just 18% think it will reduce the cost of electricity. Just 42% think the IRA will help future generations, 35% think it will add jobs and boost the economy, 26% think it will help their family and just 22% think it will help them personally.

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Recent history suggests it could take beyond a second Biden term in office for more voters to embrace the law – time we do not have. Legislation just as ambitious as the IRA – the Affordable Care Act, aka ‘Obamacare’ – was signed into law in 2010. It wasn’t until 2017 that a majority of Americans consistently held a favourable view of the law. Recent polling found support for the law still at just 55%.

Veterans of the Obama-Biden administration, most importantly the president himself, vividly recall the pitched political battles over Obamacare as well as the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka ‘the stimulus’, which pulled the US out of the Great Recession after the 2007–8 global financial crisis. Democrats lost the political messaging battle over both bills and paid dearly for it when Republicans retook control of the US House of Representatives after picking up 63 seats in the 2010 mid-term elections.

Winning the political battle

There is, however, a silver lining for the Biden administration in the Yale/George Mason survey. When voters were read a brief description of the IRA, support for the legislation surged to 68%, with self-identified “liberal” and “moderate/conservative” Democrats as well as “liberal/moderate” Republicans strongly in support. Those voters comprise Joe Biden’s governing majority for climate action.

Many of the same officials who suffered through the 2010 mid-term elections drubbing work for President Biden at the White House today. With hindsight, they acknowledge that the Obama White House failed to sell the Affordable Care Act or the stimulus. The administration opted to emphasise doing good work and delivering results, over taking credit for the good they had done.

Biden appears to have learned his lesson. In February’s State of the Union address, he said “the Inflation Reduction Act is also the most significant investment ever to tackle the climate crisis”. Biden and his Cabinet plan to visit at least 20 states in the coming weeks in a “blitz” to promote the IRA, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and CHIPS Act. Incentives in the IRA have already catalysed a surge in US electric vehicle battery manufacturing – some $73bn of new investment in 2022 alone. Tax credits and subsidies in the IRA have also helped to create more than 100,000 clean energy jobs since the law was signed, according to a new report from campaign group Climate Power.

According to the Yale/George Mason survey, one-third of US voters claim – somehow – to have heard “nothing at all” about the IRA. The White House should try to reach even these voters. After all, the same survey also showed that given minimal education on the IRA, voters’ approval of the law soared.

The US will only reach its long-term climate targets with sustained climate action. Sustained climate action depends on persuadable voters supporting politicians who are committed to the clean energy transition. With the passage of the IRA, Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats have a good story to tell. Now, despite all the headwinds – a polarised country, relentlessly negative misinformation from right-wing media – they must find a way to sell the IRA to voters.

“There is so much more to do. We will finish the job,” Biden said on 7 February of the climate fight. Finishing the job means creating the conditions to ensure the IRA’s successors will pass.