Paging Senator Sinema

Global warming is killing your constituents—now’s the time to vote for climate action

By Stephen Lemons

August 3, 2022


Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA/AP Images

As a megadrought made worse by global warming ravages the state of Arizona with death and desiccation, the state’s senior senator, Kyrsten Sinema, faces perhaps the most consequential vote of her political career. Either she will cast what is likely to be the deciding vote in favor of the Senate’s “Inflation Reduction Act,” which offers hope that carbon emissions can be cut here in Arizona and the rest of the United States by as much as 40 percent by 2030. Or she’ll vote against the bill and, in the process, roast our chances of maintaining a livable planet. 

The Inflation Reduction Act is the result of private negotiations between West Virginia senator Joe Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and the Senate is likely to vote on it as early as this week. The $790 billion legislation includes $369 billion for environment and energy initiatives, including a slew of tax credits and incentives to promote renewable energy and everything from subsidies for the purchase of electric cars to billions of dollars poured into clean energy manufacturing. 

To be sure, there are concessions to the fossil fuel industries, as you might expect from anything that has coal-lovin’ Joe Manchin’s stamp of approval on it. But for Arizona’s population of 7.4 million (and growing), time’s a wastin’.  

Up on the Nevada-Arizona border, Lake Mead, the massive reservoir on the Colorado River that provides water to millions in the region, is drying up so fast that every day brings new finds made visible by the receding shoreline: shipwrecked speedboats, WWII landing craft, and the occasional set of human remains stuffed in an oil drum or encased in mud, relics (perhaps) of the days when the mob ruled Vegas.

Arizona’s oven-like summers, with temperatures in some areas topping 120°F, are slaying people at an alarming rate, particularly the homeless and the elderly. Last summer, Arizona’s Department of Health Services recorded 552 heat-related deaths, an all-time record that the state’s on track to break this year.  

Temperatures in Arizona’s arid climate have risen 2.5°F since the beginning of the 20th century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with “historically unprecedented increases” projected during this century. Rising temperatures increase the severity of wildfires, mudslides, pollution, and human misery in general. 

Older folk who grew up in Arizona remember when it cooled down at night during the summer. But global warming and the “heat island effect”—created by urban growth and the steel, concrete, and asphalt that accompanies it—mean city dwellers turn the AC on earlier and earlier each year, and must endure more nights where the thermometer never dips below 90 degrees. 

For heat-weary Arizonans, news of the Manchin-Schumer compromise arrived like an unexpected, and welcome, monsoon rainstorm. 

Sandy Bahr, the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter director concedes the legislation is “obviously not perfect.” But it includes vital programs that will benefit Arizonans, improve the air we breathe, and offer block grants investing in “environmental and climate justice” in disadvantaged communities. 

Bahr cites as an example a traditional Black community in Randolph, Arizona, which is near a gas plant run by a state utility. The Schumer-Manchin legislation would provide “funding for air quality monitoring” there, as well as reservation-based “resiliency programs” that are particularly important in a state with 21 recognized Native American tribes, whose lands compose nearly one-third of the state.    

“I think she understands how important this is for Arizona and for individual Arizonans,” Bahr said. “This will mean more dollars in individuals’ wallets, because they can save on their energy bills. I think Sinema sees that, and I think she’ll support the bill.”

More broadly, Bahr argues that the bill will mitigate the impact of inflation, allowing people to keep more dollars in their wallets in part by allowing them to turn down the AC. The local economy will be assisted as well, as Arizona has become a hub for some electric vehicle manufacturing. All of which has left Bahr optimistic that Senator Sinema will vote for the legislation. 

“I think she understands how important this is for Arizona and for individual Arizonans,” Bahr said. “This will mean more dollars in individuals’ wallets, because they can save on their energy bills. I think Sinema sees that, and I think she’ll support the bill.” 

In general, the bill seems like a no-brainer from a Democratic standpoint. In addition to the unprecedented climate provisions, it also helps to shore up Obamacare and includes a long-sought provision to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. Manchin, one of the Senate’s reigning Democratic moderates, recently explained that he signed off on the bill after he was convinced by economists that it would not add to the deficit or make inflation worse.

So why would Sinema, Manchin’s political doppelganger, have an issue with legislation that would please party stalwarts and not terribly offend the independents and moderate Republicans that she plans to rely on should she run for reelection in 2024? 

According to PoliticoThe New York Times, and other outlets, Sinema is wavering on the legislation because: 1) she was not included in the negotiations; 2) Big Pharma is a big contributor to her campaigns and doesn’t like the Medicare provisions; and 3) because she opposes closing the carried interest tax loophole, which allows managers of private equity firms to be taxed at a lower rate than the average worker.  

Sinema’s close relationship with the Big Kahunas of private equity firms has been detailed in The Intercept and other media, with tales of Sinema raising big bucks from them in chichi fundraisers in California’s Wine Country. Sinema may have started her political career as a member of the Green Party, but she has steadily moved to the stolid center as she has risen from state legislator to US representative to US senator. 

Many Arizona Democrats have grown disillusioned with Sinema’s antics—her thumbs-down on a bill to raise the minimum wage, her refusal to consider lifting the filibuster rule to pass voting rights legislation, and the mocking Instagram pic wherein she sported a “fuck off” ring while sipping sangria. To drive home the disenchantment, the state party’s executive board censured her in January, though Sinema didn’t seem phased in the least.  

Stacey Champion—a Phoenix PR maven, lapsed Democrat turned independent, and tireless advocate for the homeless and others traumatized by the heat— thinks Sinema should vote for the bill. After all, Arizona is “the bullseye of climate change,” she tells me. But Champion expects little from her senior senator.

“No one should be surprised [if Sinema votes no],” Champion explains. “She has not fought for anything tied to the climate for years.”

Bob Lord, a former Democratic candidate for Congress in Arizona and currently a senior adviser for Patriotic Millionaires, a lefty group of rich peeps who believe in a livable minimum wage and a fair tax code, is also critical of Sinema. But he seems willing to leave the door open to the possibility that Sinema could do the right thing and vote for the Manchin-Schumer deal.

Lord notes that the pending legislation doesn’t actually close the carried interest loophole, the tax dodge so sacred to Sinema and the private equity and hedge fund maestros she hangs with. It just narrows the loophole, and not by much. Instead of it taking three years to qualify for capital gains treatment, the bill would make it a five-year hold before the Masters of the Universe could take advantage of the rule and pay way less in taxes on the dough they earn moving other people’s assets around. 

“In most deals, they’re not going to be impacted,” Lord says of those private equity execs. “But in some, they will.”

Now for the bazillion-dollar question: Can Senator Sinema live with that?

“We’ll see,” Lord chuckles. “If she’s prioritizing addressing climate change as the senator from one of the most vulnerable states, then she will support this. But if she prioritizes her donors, she’ll try to kill it.”

One intriguing sign: Last week Axios reported that Sinema was “taking a printout of the 725-page bill back to Arizona on Friday for some dense in-flight reading.”

Which sounds laughable. Unless, that is, things have changed from the days in the late aughts, when Sinema was an up-and-coming member of the Arizona House and I was a political columnist for the Phoenix New Times, the city’s alternative weekly.  

Legislators don’t read bills,” she told me on the record and with a straight face. “We have analysts read the bills and summarize them for us.”

Whether she reads the bill itself or just a summary of it, here’s hoping the good senator will take pity on her fellow Arizonans. After all, when she’s back in Phoenix, she has to breathe the same air and suffer the same heat and drought as the rest of us.