As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden unveiled a plan to tackle climate change, which he termed “an existential threat — not just to our environment, but to our health, our communities, our national security, and our economic well-being.” He promised “a bold plan — a Clean Energy Revolution — to address this grave threat.”
Immediately after he was sworn into office in January 2021, President Biden issued two executive orders to tackle the climate crisis. The executive orders started undoing the damage done by the Trump administration — for example, reinstating the Obama administration’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, and rejoining the Paris climate accord.
But they went beyond restoring the Obama status quo by pausing oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters, and directing all federal agencies to identify and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.
The elevation of environmental justice as a government-wide concern, and the directive to the Environmental Protection Agency and Justice Department to enforce environmental justice laws, were very welcome developments. The credit for this goes entirely to years of organizing by environmental justice movements.
The response from environmental organizations was favorable. For example, the Sierra Club applauded the Biden administration for “utilizing the entire government to take bold and swift action that leaves no person and no community behind.”
Today, the prospect of serious action on the scale needed to address the climate emergency, and the image of the Biden administration as being committed to climate action, are both in shambles. What happened in just a few months to bring about this sea change in the politics of climate action in the U.S.?
Infrastructure Isn’t Climate-Neutral
A key reason for this shift is the ongoing infrastructure fight in Congress.
What kind of physical infrastructure we build for energy, transportation, housing, and other areas helps determine whether, and how fast, we start cutting our greenhouse gas emissions (referred to as climate mitigation), and how we adjust our society and economy to climate change impacts that are already happening (referred to as climate adaptation).
Some of this is obvious — gas-burning power plants are the wrong energy infrastructure choice for climate mitigation, and wind turbines are the right choice.
Other infrastructure choices are less obvious. Expanding highways (ostensibly to alleviate congestion) has the perverse effect of increasing traffic. Growing traffic (measured using a metric called Vehicle Miles Traveled, or VMT), in turn, drives growing greenhouse gas emissions. If policymakers expand public transportation instead, it helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Consequently, the kind of infrastructure we fund helps determine our ability to fight climate change.
A Weak Beginning
In April 2021, Biden released his American Jobs Plan (AJP), an eight-year, $2 trillion infrastructure investment proposal.
It included $100 billion in funding for rebuilding our energy system, distributed between incentivizing the growth of renewable energy generation and storage, building a resilient electric transmission system, and more. It proposed $85 billion for public transit and $174 billion for vehicle electrification.
The plan fell far short of the level of funding that experts have estimated is needed to address the climate emergency. Energy consulting group Wood Mackenzie estimates the combined public and private investment needed to convert the U.S. power grid to 100 percent renewable energy to be $4.5 trillion, and a Rewiring America study estimates that eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. economy requires $3 trillion over 10 years in public investment alone. The public transit investment of $85 billion proposed was less than what the AJP admitted to be the repair backlog for transit systems ($105 billion).
The AJP also fell far short of the level of investments demanded by the Green New Deal Network, a network of grassroots movements: $1 trillion for renewable energy, and $600 billion each for mass transit and for retrofitting public buildings (including public housing and schools).
From the standpoint of environmental and climate justice organizations, there were additional concerns with the AJP. It proposed pilot projects for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, and expanding the tax credit for CCS.
Environmental justice organizations have been clear in their opposition to CCS. The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, created by President Biden through an executive order, included CCS facilities in a list of the types of investments that would not benefit environmental justice communities.
But things went further downhill from this weak opening proposal from the administration.
Enter the Senate
Reviewing the composition and voting rules of the U.S. Senate helps explain what happened next.
The Senate is evenly divided between the two parties, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding a tie-breaking vote to give Democrats the slimmest of majorities.
But the Senate doesn’t pass most legislation through a normal majority vote. It subjects legislation to a process called filibuster, requiring 60 votes to pass. The only exception is legislation with budgetary (tax and spending) implications, which can bypass the filibuster through a process called reconciliation.
This means any infrastructure legislation needs at least 10 Republican votes to pass the Senate, unless it’s introduced as a budgetary measure.
A group of conservative Senate Democrats, prominent among them Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), insisted on passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill as a precondition to considering a bigger reconciliation bill. And even one dissenting Democrat could kill a bill if all Republicans opposed it. That was the administration and Senate Democratic leadership’s logic for addressing infrastructure with two bills — a bipartisan bill subject to filibuster, and a larger bill passed through reconciliation.
Compromising Climate Action Away
A bipartisan group of senators started negotiating a bill, producing a framework that eviscerated the climate elements of the AJP.
Renewable energy vanished from the energy priorities. Transit funding, already inadequate in the AJP, was cut from $85 billion down to $49 billion, and vehicle electrification spending was gutted by 91 percent, from $174 billion to $15 billion.
As negotiations continued, the bipartisan proposal got worse. Transit was cut further to $39 billion, less than half the amount in the original AJP. The energy spending proposed was entirely for transmission lines and for technologies controversial for their environmental justice impacts, such as nuclear energy and carbon capture.
One item that remained essentially unchanged from the original AJP was highway spending — which, as noted earlier, can hinder the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that attempting to negotiate an infrastructure bill with a political party that denies and minimizes the climate crisis would produce an outcome such as this.
A startling revelation at the end of June 2021 shed further light on why the bipartisan infrastructure proposal gutted attempts in the original AJP to address climate change.
Investigative journalists from Greenpeace posing as recruiters got two Exxon lobbyists to share secrets on video, including revealing the degree of influence the company had on the infrastructure bill, and their targeted lobbying of key senators, including four Democrats who negotiated the bipartisan deal: Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly (both D-Arizona), Chris Coons (D-Delaware) and Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire).
Exxon’s business interests in doing so are obvious — stripping away funding for the competition (renewable energy, public transit and vehicle electrification), and building highway infrastructure that incentivizes oil and gas use.
Biden’s Stark Choice
It’s hypothetically possible, but not guaranteed, that a reconciliation package will include significant climate infrastructure funding.
There are indications conservative Democrats such as Manchin and Sinema could block the reconciliation bill if the bipartisan bill doesn’t pass, or whittle down spending levels in the reconciliation bill out of purported concern about deficits. If they do, it’s possible that funding for renewable energy, public transit or energy-efficient buildings won’t survive.
Disturbingly, Biden has said he opposes “double dipping” in infrastructure spending. This means if any item is funded (even minimally) in the bipartisan bill, he won’t support more funding for it in the reconciliation bill. This includes public transit and vehicle electrification.
A few months into Biden’s presidency, prospects of bold action to address the climate emergency look bleak. Biden himself has a great deal of responsibility for this state of affairs, by negotiating with Republicans and appeasing conservative Democrats.
The Climate Justice Alliance (CJA), comprising more than 70 grassroots organizations from frontline communities most impacted by climate change and toxic pollution, made clear on the day of Biden’s inauguration that their support for him wasn’t unconditional, and that they intend to “hold President Biden accountable for delivering on his promises, starting today.”
These weren’t empty words. On June 30, as the Exxon lobbying scandal broke, a coalition including the CJA, the Indigenous Environmental Network, Arm in Arm and ShutDownDC, blockaded entrances to the White House, demanding an end to fossil fuels along with robust infrastructure investment to address the climate crisis. Two days earlier, the youth-led Sunrise Movement had also blockaded the White House.
Clearly, Biden can’t take progressive support for granted. If he continues choosing bipartisanship over delivering on his campaign promises on climate, he faces an escalating showdown with an increasingly assertive, frontline-led climate justice movement.
The world faces a dire climate emergency, with more than 14,000 scientists warning in a letter that the planet’s “vital signs” are in bad shape. The urgency to enact serious policies to counteract climate change can’t be emphasized enough. The choice before Biden is stark: will he do what it takes to tackle the climate emergency, or squander the opportunity for the sake of “bipartisanship,” with disastrous consequences for humanity?