The Weekly Planet: The 1 Thing to Understand About Biden’s Infrastructure Plan

Unfinished pylons for the still-incomplete high-speed rail line in Fresno, California, on July 18, 2018
The $100 billion high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles remains unfinished.Jim Wilson / The New York Times / Redux

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There are some real numerical humdingers in President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan. It pledges to fix 10,000 bridges and repair 20,000 miles of road. It would buy 96,000 electric school buses and 230,000 electric U.S. Postal Service vans. Even the numbers about the numbers are big: The word billion appears in the plan 69 times.

Yet in the two weeks since the plan debuted, one number in particular has stood out to me. It underlines the plan’s importance, its ambition, and its scope. It also helps explain the almost low-key political approach taken by the Biden team.

That number: one. There is only one serious vehicle to pass climate policy through Congress during the Biden administration—and it’s this infrastructure plan. If recent history is any guide, the bill is the country’s one shot to pass meaningful climate legislation in the next few years, if not in the next few decades.

In short: If you want the United States to act at a national level to fight climate change, this bill is it. This is the climate bill.

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I say this neither to endorse the bill nor to reject it. I’m just trying to clarify the stakes. When we talk about the infrastructure bill—and we will talk about it, a lot, in the next few months—we’re not discussing some measly highways-and-airports package. The infrastructure plan is what’s supposed to put the better in the White House’s “Build Back Better” agenda. It’s meant to push the American economy toward decarbonization and climate-friendly growth.

I’m honestly not sure how widely this is understood. The idea that the infrastructure bill is the Biden administration’s climate plan seems to float in a limbo between common wisdom and insider knowledge. In the past few weeks, journalists have covered the infrastructure plan’s climate aspirations, but they’ve also focused on many other aspects: its proposals to clean up drinking water, expand broadband networks, and beef up the American semiconductor industry, for instance. Many articles have tried to answer what, exactly, the word infrastructure means. Yet the centrality of the bill has never quite been clearly stated. This is the climate bill.

This all, to some degree, amounts to a coup for the Biden administration. If nobody is focusing on the infrastructure plan’s climate programs, then how controversial can those programs be? (Indeed, the small amount of polling we have shows that many of them are quite popular.)

But the bill’s secret identity is important for several reasons—not least of which is that I worry the bill itself is somehow being overlooked. As a reporter who’s covered the warming planet for years, I regularly hear from Americans of all ages and occupations that Congress should do something about climate change. This plan … well, it’s something. In the months to come, climate-concerned Americans will have to ask themselves: Should Congress do it?

Since climate change became a political issue in 1988, Democratic presidents have had a single window early in their first term to pass a climate bill. Bill Clinton’s came in 1993, when he tried to levy a tax on certain types of energy; Barack Obama’s arrived in 2010, when he supported a more ambitious carbon-pricing bill. In both cases, the climate bill passed the House, then died in the Senate. The United States continued to muddle through without much of a plan. Most climate policy came through either puny tax credits or the president’s power to spend foreign aid.

The upshot is that the United States, the largest historical contributor to climate change, has limped for the past few decades with no serious climate policy.

But this bill hurls several different and mostly sensible tools at the climate problem. Its marquee policy is probably its clean-energy standard for the electricity sector, which aims to zero out carbon emissions from power generation by 2035. But nearly as important is its extension of certain key green-energy tax credits; it also converts these into direct payouts from the IRS, which should make them simpler, cheaper, and more equitable to implement. Also significant are the plan’s fledgling attempts at industrial policy—it aims to set up 10 “pioneer facilities” that will show how large steel, chemical, and cement makers can decarbonize through carbon capture and storage technology.

One of the intellectual fathers of this strategy was Steve Rayner, a social scientist at Oxford University who died last year at age 66. He criticized the top-down structure of the Kyoto Protocol, the international climate accord that emerged in the 1990s, which was eventually replaced by the (so far, more robust) Paris Agreement. He also somewhat infamously said that climate policy was “like a Christmas tree,” in that you could hang any other policy you wanted on it. Police reform, land-use regulation, monetary policy—these are all (to varying degrees of plausibility) climate policy.

The Biden approach is to use the issue’s Yuletide character to a political advantage. If you can hang anything on climate policy, why can’t you hang a little something for everyone, and while you’re at it, why don’t you stuff a few presents under the tree?

There are worse strategies. Given the acrimony that greeted previous climate plans, the new strategy seems to be keeping these moves as low-key as possible—working to pass historic climate legislation while not making a huge deal of it.

We’ll see if it’s successful. We’re going to be hearing about this infrastructure plan for a long time. The House of Representatives will take up the bill this week. Now that Congress has brought back earmarks, which allow individual lawmakers to flag budget lines for specific projects or nonprofits, representatives are likely to ladle all sorts of goodies into the bill. Then it will go to the Senate, where the buffet will be piled even higher than before, and then, if all goes well, Biden will sign it.

The administration hopes to pass the bill by August, because otherwise—given Congress’s languid calendar—debate over the bill could slide into next year, when the midterm elections may render lawmakers more reluctant to take controversial votes. And given that every president since George W. Bush has seen his party’s grasp of Congress weaken in his first midterm election, nobody is confident that Democrats will retain Congress after November 2022.

In other words, this one plan is likely Democrats’ only chance to pass any climate package sometime before the next presidential administration.

The proposal has flaws. A foretaste of the criticism: Many climate activists, for instance, allege that it does not spend enough money on a problem as existential as climate change. Some readers of this newsletter will be irked that it does not adopt a revenue-neutral carbon tax (even though—I must add—the Senate has no appetite for such a policy). Others may be peeved that it isn’t labeled a Green New Deal, even though it borrows that policy’s love of public investment (while omitting its populist theory of change). The bill funds its work by raising taxes on corporations; in the eyes of many economists, infrastructure improvements are better funded through deficit spending, because public works boost the economy so much that they raise the amount of money collected by other taxes, meaning infrastructure essentially pays for itself.

And yet. This bill is the only policy on the table. Congress will modify it, but lawmakers are not going to draft another legislative vehicle. The U.S. is not getting a carbon tax, a Green New Deal, or a new Department of Climate Change. We’re getting this proposal. It’s something. I think respect for our role as democratic citizens compels climate-concerned Americans to ask ourselves: Is this long-awaited something better than nothing?


Someone Else’s Weather

Sunny chaparral hills beneath a brilliant-blue sky
Ed Snyder

Weekly Planet reader Ed Snyder took this photo of a brilliant spring day in Contra Costa County, California, in the northeast corner of the Bay Area. This gorgeous park, the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, was the source of coal for San Francisco and Sacramento during the 19th century. I hadn’t realized how local coal mining was back then—but it makes sense, given how little infrastructure existed to move coal transcontinentally from the better-known mines in Appalachia.

Every week, I feature a weather photo from a reader or professional in this part of the newsletter, because the climate is someone else’s weather. If you would like to submit one, please email weeklyplanet@theatlantic.com.


4 More Things

1. The amount of methane in the atmosphere surged last year, racking up its highest year-over-year increase since records began in 1983.

That’s alarming in a way that goes to the heart of the climate problem. Methane can trap much more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide can, but it dissipates much faster than CO₂. In the long run, that means scientists tend to worry more about carbon dioxide, because CO₂ levels shape the direction of the planetary system for millennia. But in the short run, we don’t get to be as sanguine. What we actually care about, right now, is heat trapped in the Earth system—and if methane levels surge before we start to seriously ramp down industrial CO₂ emissions, humanity is going to trap a lot of heat in the planet that will be hard to remove.

Often, these surging methane levels are blamed on the build-out of natural-gas infrastructure worldwide. (Methane is the largest component of natural gas.) But, perhaps surprisingly, a preliminary analysis seems to show that last year’s surge in methane came from biological sources, such as off-gassing swamps, wetlands, and cows. I’ll keep an eye on the analysis here; regardless, the increase underlines the importance of reducing greenhouse-gas pollution as quickly as possible.

2. I recommend reading Ezra Klein’s interview with Brian Deese, one of Biden’s lead economic advisers. It helps show how much climate change has shifted to the center of Democrats’ thinking about the economy. “We need to move as quickly as possible decarbonizing our economy,” Deese says at one point. “And we need to do it in a way that creates as many jobs and as much economic opportunity as we can for Americans in this country. That is our objective.”

3. The early warning signs about California’s fire season are not good. The state’s forests are now recording the lowest-ever “fuel moisture content” for this time of year. Fuel moisture content, or FMC, measures how dry vegetation is; a more parched forest is easier to burn.

4. And in the annals of climate change taking over politics: When policy makers were drawing an exquisitely gerrymandered congressional district in Ohio, they reportedly had to drive to Lake Erie and measure the water level. They were concerned that rising sea levels would split off part of the new district, rendering it noncontiguous (and thus illegal).


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