A Down Payment Toward Winning the Future
Biden’s ambitious infrastructure plan paves the way for climate action
During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden insisted that his goals of rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and transitioning to a zero-carbon future were inseparable. In his Build Back Better plan, he pledged trillions of dollars for “modern, sustainable infrastructure” and promised to put the United States on the path to achieve net-zero emissions by no later than 2050.
On Wednesday, during a speech at a carpenters training center outside Pittsburgh, President Biden took the first step toward making good on his infrastructure promises as he unveiled the details of his plan and made his pitch to the American public on why it’s needed. “I’m convinced that if we act now, in 50 years people are going to look back and say this is the moment when America won the future,” Biden said. “It’s not a plan that tinkers around the edges. It’s a once-in-a-generation investment in America unlike anything we’ve seen or done since we built the interstate highway system and the space race decades ago. In fact, it’s the largest American jobs investment since World War II. It will create millions of jobs, good-paying jobs.”
The $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan includes large portions of the plan Biden campaigned on. Among its many provisions, it would repair 20,000 miles of roads and 10,000 bridges, eliminate all lead pipes from the nation’s drinking water system, and bring affordable high-speed internet to every American. It would invest heavily in electric vehicles and establish a grant to help states and cities install a network of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations by 2030. The White House estimates its plan would create millions of new union jobs in construction and manufacturing, including updating homes to be energy-efficient, building a more resilient electrical grid, and plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells.
Much of the environmental community applauded the proposal. “The plan is very consistent with the commitments that President Biden has made,” said Jason Walsh, the executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of unions and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club. “We are facing the intersecting crises of climate change and levels of inequality that we have not seen in this country since the Gilded Age. So it makes sense that the solutions we pursue should be as intersecting and mutually reinforcing as the crises we face.”
“Now is the time for big, bold investments in clean energy, resilient infrastructure, electric vehicles, and a reliable electric grid that will cut climate pollution nearly in half by 2030,” Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement. “And it is beyond time that we held these crucial investments to stringent standards that would start to dismantle the systemic racism and economic inequity that has created sacrifice zones, saddling communities with the disproportionate effects of pollution, poverty, pandemic, and public health crises.”
Yet a plan is only a plan—and the proposal will have to overcome political hurdles to become reality. In dealing with its crumbling infrastructure, the United States is now $2.6 trillion behind schedule on making repairs and upgrades. In its most recent infrastructure report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers awarded the United States a C-. The hefty investment needed to correct course will require legislation, and whether Congress can muster the support to pass Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure agenda remains to be seen—particularly in the Senate, where Democrats hold the slimmest possible majority. Senator Joe Manchin, the centrist Democrat from West Virginia, has already promised to block an infrastructure bill if Republicans aren’t included.
There’s a good chance that much of Biden’s plan will take the legislative form of a surface transportation bill, which Congress has a September deadline to reauthorize. Last year, Democrats folded the highway and public transit funding into a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package that closely mirrored Biden’s plan. It passed in the House but stalled in the Senate, where then–majority leader Mitch McConnell called it a “multi-thousand-page cousin of the Green New Deal masquerading as a highway bill.” Representative Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has suggested that this year’s bill will look similar. “We’re not going to do Eisenhower 8.0,” DeFazio said during a hearing last week, referencing the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s.
Indeed, the Biden proposal sketches out a vision of the future that will be less car-centric. Among other things, it includes $80 billion for Amtrak’s maintenance backlog; $85 billion to modernize public transit networks; and $20 billion to make streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians. There are also monies dedicated for transitioning away from fossil fuels, including $16 billion toward plugging abandoned oil and gas wells and restoring old coal and uranium mines. Another $10 billion is slated for Biden’s proposed Civilian Climate Corps.
Republicans in Congress insist that they want to pass infrastructure legislation but argue that any package should prioritize investments in more traditional (read: car-dependent) infrastructure, such as roads and bridges. Already, they’re making the case that Biden’s plan is a “Trojan horse” for tax increases and progressive policy initiatives, illustrating just how tough it’s going to be to reach a bipartisan consensus on infrastructure. “Infrastructure means a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” said Representative Sam Graves of Missouri, the ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “A transportation bill needs to be a transportation bill, not a Green New Deal. It needs to be about roads and bridges.”
Democrats seem determined to move forward regardless of Republican opposition. In mid-March, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, a senior Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which is responsible for crafting a surface transportation bill in the Senate, was caught on C-SPAN acknowledging that Democrats will likely have to use budget reconciliation for their infrastructure plans. “If Republicans' reaction to infrastructure is similar to their reaction to COVID relief, then the president and Democrats in Congress are just going to have to push [a bill] through without them,” Walsh of the BlueGreen Alliance said. “I do think, realistically, we are going to have to move through budget reconciliation.”
Despite the partisan rankling in Congress, infrastructure legislation like what Biden is proposing has wide bipartisan support among voters nationally. A Gallup poll published before the 2020 election found that infrastructure ranked as one of the issues with the smallest partisan divide, just behind terrorism, taxes, and the economy (the issue with the biggest divide: climate change). In a more recent survey of 1,500 voters in the Midwest conducted by the BlueGreen Alliance, 83 percent said repairing and modernizing America’s aging infrastructure is important. That support decreases when climate policies are added to the mix, but it still amounts to a majority: 64 percent believe it is important to modernize American manufacturing so that it’s more environmentally friendly, including 57 percent of Republicans. “This pandemic has brought forward the fact that far too many people don’t have broadband access and don’t have what they need to get their job done from home or their kids educated,” Betsy Price, the Republican mayor of Fort Worth, Texas, told The Washington Post last month. “More money that goes into that, and infrastructure of any kind, is gonna be a winning message for many people.”
Carolyn Berndt, the legislative director for sustainability for the National League of Cities, said mayors and other local leaders can provide a better gauge of the national temperature on issues like infrastructure because they are the closest layer of government to people. “Local leaders are problem solvers,” Berndt said. “When there’s a disaster in their community, it’s really not about partisan politics, it’s about responding to their community’s needs. In that sense, dealing with the effects of climate change is no different than filling a pothole.”
Comparing climate-fueled catastrophes to run-of-the-mill road repair may seem a stretch. But Berndt’s line illustrates the fact that the work of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for climate-related damages will, in many ways, be as mundane and every bit as job-generating as repairing streets. Unglamorous though it may seem, the climate crisis is also an infrastructure problem—a problem that, as Biden made clear in his speech, needs to be addressed now. 2020 was tied for the warmest year on record. The combination of climate disruption and outdated infrastructure is already wreaking havoc in many parts of the country—look at the cold snap that froze natural gas pipelines in Texas, or the power lines accused of sparking California’s increasingly grim wildfire seasons. The disastrous effects of climate change are pretty much guaranteed to get worse in the decade ahead. An analysis published in January by NOAA reported that the United States endured 22 climate disasters that caused over a billion dollars in damage last year.
“Every dollar we spend rebuilding from a climate-driven disaster is a dollar we could have spent building a more competitive, modern, and resilient transportation system that produces significantly lower emissions,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last week.
Even though Republicans in Congress seem unwilling to work with the White House, the president extended to them an olive branch of sorts during his speech on Wednesday. “I’m going to bring Republicans into the Oval Office, listen to them, what they have to say, and be open to other ideas,” Biden said. “We will have a good-faith negotiation.”