The Infrastructure Bill Won’t Cut It on Climate

Washington cannot address a small sliver of our carbon pollution and call it a victory.

Illustration of the U.S. Capitol with a thermometer replacing the dome.
Getty; The Atlantic

Lately, I’ve struggled to fall asleep. For the past two weeks, I’ve watched unprecedented climate disasters strike day after day, and I’ve feared that people would die.

On the last Monday in June, Seattle hit 108 degrees Fahrenheit—a new record, way above normal temperatures, usually in the low 70s. In Portland, Oregon, it was even hotter—116 degrees—causing roads to buckle and streetcar cables to bend. Across the West Coast, upwards of 800 people died in the heat wave. Later that week, President Joe Biden met with western governors to discuss the once-in-400-years drought scorching the American West. It stretches from Montana through New Mexico and all the way to the coast, affecting almost 60 million Americans.

That same week, Detroit grappled with flooding so severe, it turned highways into swamps. The East Coast baked in its own extreme heat, as Hurricane Elsa headed toward it. Fires in California ballooned out of control. The dramatic finish came on Friday, when a fossil-fuel pipeline burst in the Gulf of Mexico, lighting the ocean on fire.

July has not since improved: New York City subways flooded after extreme rainfall, the heat waves have continued, and fires across the West have exploded. Just a few days ago, Death Valley likely hit the modern global record for the hottest recorded temperature ever: 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists have linked heat waves, drought, wildfires, floods, and hurricanes to the climate crisis. Across the country, these disasters are becoming impossible to ignore.

They aren’t the only things keeping me up at night. Negotiations over federal climate policy have held me in anxious suspense for months. With 50 Democratic votes in the Senate, Congress has a narrow opportunity this summer to pass the bold climate-investment package that the president proposed at the end of March. His American Jobs Plan lays out a vision to cut carbon pollution by 50 to 52 percent by 2030 through significant investments in climate action. His proposal is extremely encouraging, and I expected Congress to act on a climate bill quickly. Yet the months have dragged on, and Congress has not made progress.

When Biden announced a bipartisan infrastructure bill on June 24, many expected that it would include significant climate investments. As the details trickled out, though, it became clear that very little climate policy was in the bill. Sure, there was spending for public transit, clean water, and transmission lines—all worthy allocations. But the bill would hardly cut carbon pollution, ultimately doing little to stop climate change from accelerating each year.

We cannot address a small sliver of our carbon pollution and call it a victory. We have to tackle this problem at scale. The last chance we had for a federal climate bill was 12 years ago. I’m afraid that Congress will again fail to pass climate legislation that invests at the necessary level. I’m worried that we’ll keep burning time we no longer have.

But we must not abandon hope. “Despair is paralysis,” the ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. “It robs us of agency. It blinds us to our own power and the power of the earth. Environmental despair is a poison.”

Activists across the country are pushing Congress and the White House to act. The Sunrise Movement recently held a protest in front of the White House, where more than 500 young people demanded meaningful climate policy this summer. The next day, more than 100 labor leaders were on the National Mall with a similar message. And the advocacy group Fossil Free Media has launched a campaign urging people to call their senators to demand a “big, bold climate bill.”

The White House, responding to this pressure, has indicated that it knows the bipartisan infrastructure deal is not enough. National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy has called on Congress to pass a parallel climate package, highlighting clean-energy tax credits, a clean-electricity standard, and the Civilian Climate Corps as key policies to include.

Many Democratic leaders in Congress have also promised to deliver ambitious climate policy this summer. Fourteen Democratic senators have said that they won’t move forward on the infrastructure bill without a tandem climate package—a position that Senator Ed Markey summed up as “No climate, no deal.” Almost 60 percent of the House Democratic caucus has since echoed this call. Crucially, both Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have said that they will deliver climate policy this summer through budget reconciliation—a process that requires only 50 votes.

There are reasons to feel hopeful that we will get a climate bill across the finish line. But will it be big and bold enough to tackle the crisis?

On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to spend $2 trillion on climate. His proposed climate plan adds up to about $3 trillion, if all his proposals are implemented. Many climate activists have called for more spending, from $4 trillion to $10 trillion. Like debt, climate costs pile up when they go unpaid for decades.

Congress must include several crucial climate investments in a package that passes this summer to get the U.S. on track to meet Biden’s pollution-reduction goal. As an adviser to Evergreen Action, a climate-change advocacy group, I’ve been working to determine what a successful and comprehensive climate bill would look like.

In the power sector, I think that the U.S. must hit 80 percent clean electricity by 2030 through a clean-electricity standard and extensions of clean-energy tax credits. These are policies that the White House has consistently championed, and for good reason: They will get us more than halfway to the president’s goal.

While the bipartisan infrastructure framework includes investments in charging stations for electric vehicles, I think that Congress must go much further to clean up our transportation system. We need to rapidly scale up the use of electric vehicles through consumer incentives that bring down their cost. By 2030, we need a majority of cars sold to be electric. This could get us another quarter of the way to the president’s goal.

In the building sector, carbon pollution has increased over the past 15 years. I think that Congress must enact clean-building policies, including grants for domestic manufacturers of electric appliances and consumer rebates for heat pumps and induction stoves. We also need to dramatically scale up federal support for low-income Americans to make sure that they can live in clean buildings and afford their electricity bills.

With these policies and investments in cleaning up the industrial sector, Congress could secure the pollution cuts necessary to meet Biden’s 2030 goal. And it could do so in a way that prioritizes justice, by ensuring that 40 percent of the bill’s investments are allocated for communities facing the worst levels of pollution today.

All of these federal investments will pay us back—in cheaper technology, cleaner air, good-paying jobs, greater equality, and the stable climate we so desperately need. I’ve been working on climate for the past 16 years, and I’ve never seen a summer like the one we’re experiencing now. If Congress spends too little, or passes only the bipartisan infrastructure package, we will continue to head in the wrong direction, and there will be worse summers ahead.