Biden Infrastructure Plan: Will He Keep His Climate Promises? - Rolling Stone
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Is Biden Screwing This Up?

We’re in a do-or-die moment on climate legislation. Six months into his term, is Biden getting the job done?

FILE - In this June 24, 2021, file photo President Joe Biden, with from left, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and a bipartisan group of senators, walks out to speak to the media outside the White House in Washington. Top congressional Democrats are hunting for the sweet spot that would satisfy the partys rival moderate and progressive wings, a crucial moment as they craft legislation financing President Joe Bidens multi-trillion dollar agenda of bolstering the economy and helping families. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

President Joe Biden, flanked by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., in June.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Jamal Raad has spent this year assessing every climate action the Biden administration has taken — from the first reveal of Biden’s climate plan last summer, to the executive actions on Inauguration Day, to the unprecedented climate-crucial infrastructure package now inching through Congress. But if you ask Raad, the executive director of the climate policy group Evergreen Action, to assess the president’s first six months in office, he’s reluctant to do it. “If I had to give a grade,” Raad says, “it would be an ‘Incomplete.'”

It’s not for any particular lack of action or misstep on Biden’s part, Raad says. The “incomplete” is because Raad is looking forward, not back. And he’s not alone: When we asked climate experts to grade the first six months of the Biden administration on its climate policies, everyone was much more concerned with the months ahead. “The next six months will be the most crucial for him,” says Raad. “A decade from now, he will be judged on a lot of issues, but none more so than climate. And whether, in the next six months, he passes a bold climate bill and a reconciliation package that has investments that meet the scale and scope of the crisis.”

But in a divided political climate, under a ticking clock, is the Biden administration up to the challenge? Every climate expert we spoke to agrees that Biden came out of the gate strong: pledging to review every policy that was instituted during the climate-denying Trump era, rejoining the Paris Agreement, committing his administration to environmental justice on day one. “No president has ever done that,” says Brett Hartl, director of government affairs at the Center for Biological Diversity.

But after his fireworks in January, some experts worry that Biden’s agenda has gotten lost in the process of governance. “He started strong, but they’ve lost that momentum,” says Hartl. “We’re not seeing the sweeping reversal of the Trump era that a lot of us had hoped we would see.”

In a report last month, the Center for Biological Diversity assessed Biden’s progress on 25 key environmental promises, and 50 necessary rollbacks of the Trump administration’s policies. Based on Biden’s progress at the six-month point, the Center gave him a C-, “Needs Improvement.” 

The report cited key policies where the Biden administration has continued to support Trump’s position, most glaringly in oil and gas development: permitting the expansion of Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline in Minnesota; allowing the Willow Arctic Drilling Project to move forward in a Alaska, which will pump 100,000 barrels of oil each day for the next 30 years; and supporting the continued operation of the Dakota Access pipeline, a project that his own Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, protested on the ground

The report also notes that the Biden administration has barely begun to reverse the 100 or so environmental rollbacks of the Trump administration — it has only successfully reversed three of them, and started work on eight more. “At this pace,” the report determined, “the majority of Trump’s attacks on the environment are likely to stay in place through the end of Biden’s first term.” And it is far from certain that he will get a second one. 

The report’s criticism comes down to a question of speed — a tricky line to tread in federal rule-making, a slow, bureaucratic process that typically takes 18 months to two years to complete correctly. The Trump administration was unusually hasty in its rule making. “He forced all of the executive branch agencies to realize his agenda — no matter how stupid — in an efficient, timely manner,” Hartl says. 

But in their haste, the Trump administration left significant legal gaps in their rules — like shortening or entirely skipping the 60 days required for public comment — and allowed Biden a real foothold to overturn them if he wants to. Raad thinks the Biden administration isn’t moving slowly so much as it’s moving with care, to avoid making the same mistake Trump made by moving too fast and leaving changes open to legal challenge, especially when they’re facing a judiciary that’s been stacked with Trump judges. “With a Roberts conservative court,” Raad says, “they need to make sure that all their executive work will be foolproof, and pass legal muster,” a concern that was legitimized just a few months into Biden’s term, when a court overruled his pause on federal oil and gas leasing

The administration’s lack of speed could also be a sign that the agencies are still recovering from the past four years. “A lot of agencies were gutted under Trump,” says Leah Stokes, a climate policy expert from University of California, Santa Barbara. Trump’s anti-science policies chased hundreds of scientists out of the federal government; the number of environmental specialists in the EPA alone dropped by 24 percent. And despite Biden’s efforts to appoint climate experts throughout his government, many of the positions remain unfilled. “The Trump administration intentionally demoralized people in a lot of key agencies and people left,” Stokes says. “They intentionally created a lot of chaos. So not only do you have to clean up that chaos, you’ve got to hire people. That’s just going to get you back to the zero line. And then you gotta start moving in the right direction.”

These next six months will be crucial in moving in that right direction. The linchpin is the infrastructure and reconciliation packages that are now being debated in Congress. 

The bills were born out of Biden’s $2.25 trillion American Jobs Plan, announced in March. The bipartisan infrastructure bill needs 60 votes in the Senate to pass (meaning 10 Republicans have to sign off on it), and a truncated version just made it onto the Senate floor. But even with less than half the investment of the original plan, the $1 trillion bill is an unprecedented investment in climate preparedness: mapping out a $550 billion investment in public transit, water infrastructure, and electric vehicle charging stations; tens of billions of dollars to protect against increasing floods, reduce wildfire damage, and develop new sources of drinking water in areas that suffer from droughts; and $130 million for “community relocation,” helping Indigenous Americans leave areas that are dangerously impacted by the climate crisis. The Senate could vote on the bill as early as this week.  

But massive chunks of the American Jobs Plan were lost in the name of bipartisanship. Hartl points to one of the pillars of Biden’s plan, the funding for electric vehicle charging stations, which started at a lofty $174 billion dollars, but squeaked out at $7.5 billion in the latest version of the bill. “The goalposts keep shifting farther and farther away from ambition,” says Hartl. “It’s hard to pass things in Congress that are going to get you where the science says we need to be.”

To get closer to where we need to be, the administration is also moving forward on a budget reconciliation effort — a $3.5 trillion social, health, and environmental bill that will only require the Democrats’ 50 votes (plus Vice President Harris’ tie-breaking vote) to pass. And that’s where the magic could happen. In it, there are several key provisions that would amount to a major down-payment on decarbonizing our economy and mitigating the worst impacts of the climate crisis: tax incentives for electric cars and renewable energy sources; a Civilian Climate Corps to work on important adaptation projects like rebuilding wetlands; and a national clean energy standard that would require electric utilities to steadily reduce emissions. If we are to achieve Biden’s goal of getting to net zero by 2050 — which pretty much every climate scientist tells us we need to do — this would be the biggest step yet in American history toward doing it. 

The administration has an immense negotiation effort ahead of them, so the concern is what could end up on the cutting room floor in the process. And getting all 50 Democratic votes in line  won’t be easy with party members like Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, who has already said she won’t support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion, and West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin — who directly profits from fossil fuels — and recently called the efforts to eliminate fossil fuels “very, very disturbing.” 

“And at the end of the day, that’s the guy you need,” says Julian Brave NoiseCat, the vice president of policy and strategy for the progressive think tank Data for Progress. “So how do you square that circle? Biden has to signal to his party, to the media, to the world that he’s taking this issue seriously, and at the same time, carry along the most hesitant actors of his own camp.”

NoiseCat points to the fundamental makeup of the Democratic Party as one of the biggest challenges to enacting climate policy. “We have a unique asymmetric disadvantage in America’s two party system,” he says, “because we constantly have to put together a majority out of a bunch of constituencies.” The Republican Party is relatively homogenous, with more unified priorities, but the Democratic coalition is a big tent with diverse groups, each bringing their own priorities to the table. So even if all Democrats mostly agree the climate crisis is real, it’s caused by humans, and we should do something about it, there are very different ideas about what that should look like.   

Organized labor, for example, is traditionally a major ally of the Democratic Party, but unionized workers with interests in the fossil fuel industry — like oil and gas, utilities, and car manufacturers — are hesitant to support policies that would end the use of fossil fuels. Effectively, “the fossil fuel industry gets dual representation in Congress,” NoiseCat says. First, the corporations themselves, which are a key constituency of the Republican Party, and then through unions.

It creates a barrier in the Democrats’ messaging — one that NoiseCat says could ultimately sabotage the midterms, and halt Biden’s entire climate plan. A key example is the auto industry: The administration spent an enormous amount of airtime pushing American-made electric vehicles — Biden posed for photos in a Ford F 150; National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm test drove a Chevy Bolt — and this week announced the goal of making half of all cars produced in the U.S. electric by 2030. And while electric vehicles are fundamental to our shift away from fossil fuels — and the support of the United Auto Workers is fundamental to the success of these bills — “the majority of the country is actually not that excited about electric vehicles,” says NoiseCat.

It’s good policy, but not the most effective messaging to put so much emphasis on it, he says, when there are other policies they could emphasize that would galvanize a broader coalition. “Most of the party would rather be talking about things like making the [electric] grid more resilient, or the fact that we want to replace all the lead pipes across the country,” he says, pointing to the 15 to 22 million homes that still get water through lead pipes in the U.S. “Basically, we should never not be talking about lead pipes. And yet, we are rarely talking about the fact that we’re replacing all the lead pipes [through funding] in the infrastructure package.” 

Others worry that in a moment that requires the full weight of the federal government behind it, the Biden administration isn’t using all of the tools at its disposal. The legislative and executive branches can be looked at as a carrot and a stick. Ideally, the government would be using the legislative effort as a sort of “carrot” — offering tax breaks and incentives to industry to make changes that would reduce their carbon emissions. And if they refuse to work with the legislative process, the agencies are the “stick,” imposing regulations without the cushion of tax breaks.

“The budget reconciliation process is about spending. It’s about job creation. It’s all good stuff,” says Stokes. “And if people don’t want to go with that, or they turn stuff down, they’re going to have sticks waiting for them through the regulatory process.”

For Hartl, the administration’s delays in rolling back Trump’s regulations and establishing new ones is a foreboding sign that Biden could be making some of the same mistakes of the Obama administration — waiting for the legislative effort to succeed or fail before they move forward with harsher regulations. Early in his first term, Obama tried to pass a big climate package that included a carbon tax, but after months of fighting to get Republican support and industry on board it died in the Senate, and Obama didn’t pursue significant climate action again until his second term, through executive actions that were much more easily reversed by his successor. 

“If the agencies were to regulate at the same time as Congress,” says Hartl, “Congress would be able to assert their prerogative, and engage more.” If the agencies wait, however, “they’ve effectively lost a year.”

“We are late enough in the game on climate that we don’t have the luxury of choosing our preferred policy approach, legislative versus executive,” says Raad “We do it all. And we need to do it all yesterday.”

But, he adds, “I think it’s important to acknowledge that the Biden administration is not the Obama administration. They’ve had a team of climate advocates and experts running the shop from the beginning, who have spent the last four years thinking about this work, and have prioritized climate much, much more than President Obama did.”

And that’s shown in some of the big wins that the administration does have in its pocket. Perhaps the most sweeping change was reintroducing the “social cost of carbon” principle to the U.S. government — requiring that every agency factor in the health, property, and environmental costs of emitting greenhouse gases — which could have a ripple effect through every decision the executive branch makes.

Regulations on methane emissions have also been reinstated (a key step to meeting our emissions goals), the Keystone XL pipeline halted, and protections restored for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. “We have a lot of people working in good faith right now, a lot more than we’ve ever had on climate,” says Stokes. 

And so for all of the weight of the work left to be done, most of the climate experts we spoke with are still optimistic about what the Biden administration can pull off. “Everyone’s so used to nothing happening,” says Stokes, “so they think nothing’s gonna happen. But we’ve got Schumer, Pelosi, Sanders, the White house. We’ve got a lot of people saying, ‘We’re gonna do this.’ So maybe you should start taking them seriously.” 

And every expert was quick to acknowledge that with floods and fires on millions of Americans’ doorsteps, there’s never been an easier time to communicate those consequences. “I think the summer of 2021 will be remembered as the summer that the American people saw with their own eyes that climate change is no longer happening in some far off future,” says Raad. “It’s happening in communities right now, all across America, and people are dying.”

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