Earlier this week, after months of behind-the-scenes staff work to shape a bill that would pass an otherwise gridlocked Congress, President Biden finalized plans for a generational investment of U.S. resources to address climate change. Getting the bill to his desk was a political feat that required bringing opposing wings of his party together. Whether the policy investments outlined in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 are successful in stemming the impacts of global climate change will require a different kind of coalition building, one where evidence is front and center in shaping how the law is implemented and data is brought to bear in new ways to measure whether it’s working. Thankfully, while many of the climate investments will require standing up new programs, the agencies responsible for doing so aren’t starting from scratch. There’s a playbook for success if decision makers follow the evidence.
The $370 billion in climate-related investments within the Inflation Reduction Act is a significant step by the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and limit its contribution to climate change, a problem that affects everyone across the globe. With this bill, the United States is investing in solutions that lift up communities with low income and disadvantaged communities that are disproportionately impacted by climate change. Achieving these climate and equity goals will require effectively engaging with communities that far too often have been left behind by government programs and measuring if the programs are having the intended impacts.
The legislation includes $3 billion in Environmental and Climate Justice grants for states as block grants, which could create opportunity for innovative approaches based on local conditions. In practice, though, block grants have been susceptible to discriminatory policies and procedures that can inhibit otherwise qualified individuals, families, companies, and organizations from accessing much-needed funds in their communities.
Similarly, $15 billion in targeted funding to support clean energy and emissions reduction in communities with low income and disadvantaged communities will require federal agencies to engage these groups in more meaningful ways if there is any hope of this funding having the intended effects on their environment and improving outcomes for these communities.
The evidence community should celebrate this landmark step forward for the United States. But the government’s acknowledgement of the role it can play in addressing climate change and in investing in people that have been left behind by other landmark legislation means its real work is just beginning. Agencies implementing this legislation should follow the evidence to have the best shot at success.
Vigorously engage to reach communities, powered by evidence.
Agencies should use equity impact assessments to not only predict the impacts of proposed policies, but also to monitor and refine policy changes as they are enacted. It also means prioritizing the collection and analysis of comprehensive data across programs, including specific data on race and ethnicity which can be used to better direct services and supports to the design of programs. These were among the ideas Mathematica shared with the Office of Management and Budget in 2021 that continue to be relevant to the agencies charged with implementing these new investments.
This is an opportunity for evidence to play a role standing up programs as well as defining eligibility criteria that is both politically viable and reaches those that have previously been left behind. However, block granting could complicate the intended focus on addressing discrimination and achieving more equitable outcomes. Interestingly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s role in overseeing the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program could provide a road map for how microsimulation modeling can be used to inform potential program designs.
In addition, we know from our work with farmers in other parts of the world that even when funding is designed to reach those who have faced challenges in the past, those farmers with more advantages from the start often drive positive program results. This can lead to tension with funders looking to reach the right people who also want to move the needle quickly and demonstrate early success.
Learn from what works (and what doesn’t) based on similar U.S. investments abroad.
For decades, the United States has invested in helping other countries develop more sustainable and equitable agriculture practices through the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Lessons learned from those investments should be used to stand up new domestic agriculture programs. Doing so will mean learning from these agencies’ playbook about what works. Specifically, practitioners should listen harder, identify natural segments, and start small, while researchers need to do more to support design and program improvement.
Create meaningful measures to determine which investments move the needle and by how much.
Decision makers implementing these new programs should make measurement and evaluation a centerpiece of their approach from the start and plan accordingly. It will require understanding, planning for, and learning from the trade-offs between climate and income goals, as well as centering equity in the development of both policies and evaluations. This can be accomplished by asking intentional questions when deciding on research objectives, determining how to fund evaluations, and supporting evaluation over the course of the programs. By not establishing meaningful baseline measures upfront, later agency assessment and refinement efforts will be hampered by all the data that went uncollected at program inception.
Given the stakes and the timelines, making measurement and evaluation a priority also means looking at emerging approaches like Bayesian methods to help determine which policies and programs work and for whom. It also means considering the use of rapid-cycle evaluation and continuous learning approaches like our Learn, Innovate, Improve (LI2) framework to drive decisions more quickly as programs are designed, implemented, and refined.
Although the Inflation Reduction Act is an important investment in addressing climate change in our lifetimes, it is just that—an investment. For it to pay off, the programs and policies being put in place over the next months and years by the same staffers poring through the legislation today will need to be built on a platform of what works, backed by more and better data, informed by cutting-edge analysis, and supported by a commitment to equitable engagement and evaluation. Only then can we begin to measurably reap the benefits of this down payment on our future.