The two funding packages now being debated by Congress and held up by “moderate” Senators Manchin and Sinema along with a flock of so-called “progressives” are quite possibly the best chances we will ever have to accelerate the decarbonization of our economy and adapt to the climate change that is already baked into our atmosphere. It is not simply that America is running out of time; without American leadership, the rest of the world will not adequately transition to a green economy. China is already re-starting its coal industry, and the developing world hunger for energy requires rapid development and transfer of renewable energy technologies along with subsidies to price it below fossil fuels. The developed world will need to provide those technologies and subsidies and we need to do a better job than we’ve done, for example, with the COVID vaccine.
The trillion-dollar bi-partisan Infrastructure Bill has plenty of money for roads, bridges and broadband, but it also has significant funding for environmental protection. The political tactic that progressives have adopted to hold up the bill by linking it to the larger Build Back Better bill is reckless and irresponsible. It is a symbolic stunt that places political interest above the public interest. Opposing the Infrastructure Bill puts in danger a law that includes the largest single authorization of environmental funding in American history. According to the White House Fact sheet on the bill, it includes the following environmental provisions:
“The bill invests $105 billion in new funding to improve healthy, sustainable transportation options for millions of Americans by modernizing and expanding transit and rail networks across the country. It will replace thousands of transit vehicles, including buses, with clean, zero emission vehicles… The bill invests $7.5 billion to build out the first-ever national network of EV chargers in the United States…. The deal invests $5 billion in zero and low emission school buses, in addition to more than $5 billion in funding for public transit agencies to adopt low- and no-emissions buses…The deal makes our communities safer and our infrastructure more resilient to the impacts of climate change and cyber attacks, with an investment of roughly $50 billion. This includes funds to protect against droughts and floods, in addition to a major investment in weatherization. The bill is the largest investment in the resilience of physical and natural systems in American history… The deal’s $55 billion investment represents the largest investment in clean drinking water in American history, including dedicated funding to replace lead service lines and the dangerous chemical PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl). It will replace all the nation’s lead pipes and service lines… The deal invests $21 billion in environmental remediation, making the largest investment in addressing the legacy pollution that harms the public health of communities and neighborhoods in American history…The bill includes funds to clean up superfund and brownfield sites, reclaim abandoned mine land and cap orphaned gas wells… The deal’s roughly $60 billion investment is the single largest investment in clean energy transmission in American history. It upgrades our power infrastructure, including by building thousands of miles of new, resilient transmission lines to facilitate the expansion of renewable energy. It creates a new Grid Deployment Authority, invests in research and development for advanced transmission and electricity distribution technologies, and promotes smart grid technologies that deliver flexibility and resilience.”
In case you don’t have your calculator handy, that is $308.5 billion dollars to accelerate the transition to a green economy, adapt to climate change, protect our water supply, and clean up the environment. That is a boatload of environmental cash that will have a transformative impact on our economy and environment. While I agree that the Build Back Better Act does even more and is worth fighting for, holding up this consensus-built Infrastructure Bill is the height of idiocy. The symbolic posturing and half-baked bargaining that has become the norm in the American Congress seems to have infected the entire institution. Compromise, and the craft of give-and-take, is required for legislation to be enacted. If FDR and LBJ had adhered to the contemporary progressive model of legislative bargaining, there would never have been a New Deal or a Great Society. Many social programs began as imperfect compromises and were improved over time. I recognize that both Roosevelt and Johnson had more reasonable opponents than today’s Democrats have with Congressional Republicans, but that is an even better reason to avoid risking a true bi-partisan deal. The Build Back Better Act was always going to require a deal within the Democratic Party between progressives and moderates. The Infrastructure Bill was an unnecessary and symbolic hostage taken by progressives to give the appearance of being tough bargainers. The so-called leverage gained by holding it up has predictably proven to be non-existent.
Nevertheless, the Build Back Better Act’s Clean Electricity Payment Plan is a well-designed policy that pays utilities for increasing renewable energy by four percent a year and fines them if they don’t. Along with clean energy tax credits, the bill authorizes $235 billion for green energy production and consumption along with $80 billion in electric personal and mass transportation. This is one provision that Joe Manchin is fighting, but one way or the other, he needs to be convinced it is critical. The larger reconciliation bill is also essential to our environmental future, but unlike the bi-partisan Infrastructure Bill, it is still under deep and contentious negotiation. Perhaps one compromise might be to reward utilities for transitioning to renewable energy without punishing those who do not. The Build Back Better Act allocates about one trillion dollars to environmental protection compared to about $300 billion in the bi-partisan Infrastructure Bill. According to the Environmental Defense Fund’s Danielle Arostegui, the Build Back Better Act is:
“…our single best shot at addressing the looming crisis of climate change…Passing the Build Back Better Act through the budget reconciliation process is Congress’ best chance to act on climate change for the foreseeable future. The Build Back Better Act is the only bill on the table that has the potential to meet this critical climate moment: the best available science dictates that we reduce our emissions of climate pollution sharply in the next couple decades to avert the worst impacts of climate change. To align with this, the U.S. has set a goal of reducing its climate emissions by at least 50% by 2030. It’s an ambitious goal, but one that’s both necessary and achievable to meet… As currently written, the bill includes in the ballpark of $1 trillion for climate and clean-energy-related measures. For comparison, this is more than 10 times as much climate-related funding as was included in the 2009 Recovery Act, making it the single largest investment in combating climate change the country has ever seen…. The Build Back Better Act … includes crucial funding to incentivize the build-out of clean electricity like wind and solar, install electric vehicle charging stations, and incentivize the replacement of heavily polluting trucks with zero-emissions alternatives. Additional funding for technological innovation, domestic clean technology manufacturing, agricultural and natural climate solutions, and wildfire prevention, and a proposed fee on oil and gas methane emissions help round out the solution set.”
It’s true that the bill is at the appropriate scale and is about ten times larger than the green elements of the Obama stimulus of 2009, however, Arostegui seems to omit the fact that the bi-partisan Infrastructure Bill that EDF is helping to stall is three times larger than the 2009 green stimulus and unlike the reconciliation package could be enacted this afternoon.
This is a critical moment in the half-century history of modern American environmental policy. The Democrats in Congress literally hold the fate of the planet in their slippery hands. The era of endless news and social media has turned our legislative branch into the most mediocre talk show we’ve ever seen. Even the people I agree with embarrass me. It’s time to cut the nonsense and make some deals. It’s time for Congress to consider the public interest and place it above all other considerations. We don’t need an “all or nothing approach” to accelerate the transition to an environmentally sustainable economy. Three hundred billion dollars is a good start. While I’d like to see $1.3 trillion, we could do a great deal of good with a trillion or even a paltry $800 billion. It would be beyond tragic if we ended up with nothing. The fossil fuel counter-attack is well underway. No longer denying climate science, they are using the pandemic-induced rise in fuel prices to claim that renewable energy is not up to the job of powering America. The lobbyists are out in force and the Biden Administration’s unforced errors are starting to erode his influence. The Democrats must quickly pass the Infrastructure Bill and compromise on reconciliation. There is no time to spare.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.