“Finally, Green Infrastructure Spending in an Amount That Starts with a ‘T’
“The U.S. federal government is proposing to spend a sum of money that starts with a ‘T’ on an infrastructure bill, and much of that money (two trillion dollars) is aimed at fighting the climate crisis. That is remarkable, and not just when you consider that we’re only seventy-five days out from an Administration that didn’t believe climate change was real. In my lifetime, we’ve spent sums like that mainly on highly dangerous infrastructure—aircraft carriers, fighter jets, nuclear weapons—and the wars in which they were used. To see a proposal to spend it on solar panels and trains is moving, and also just the slightest bit annoying: Why weren’t we doing this all along? Why weren’t we doing it in the nineteen-eighties, when scientists first told us that we were in a crisis? So it seems a fitting moment to really try to tally up the score: What are we doing as a nation now, is it enough, and how would we know if it were?
“One of the best summaries of what’s in the Biden proposal comes from David Roberts in his Volts newsletter: he highlights the ‘coolest’ features, from electrifying the postal-service delivery fleet (and a fifth of the nation’s school buses) to a national climate lab situated at a historically Black college and a major transmission grid for renewables that may follow existing rail rights of way. The energy systems engineer Jesse Jenkins, on Twitter, points out that the bill should spur the electric-car industry—the subsidy for buyers would make the cost difference with gasoline cars ‘disappear.’ Julian Brave NoiseCat salutes provisions of the plan that would send forty per cent of the investments to disadvantaged communities, which is a sharp turn from the way big federal spending bills have worked for most of American history.
“The criticism, at least from environmentalists, was of the ‘Yes and’ variety. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that she thought we should be spending not two trillion dollars but ten trillion. Varshini Prakash, the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, which has done as much as any organization to get us to this moment, pointed out that the bill incorporates much of what the Green New Deal advocates, including ten billion for a Civilian Climate Corps to put people to work building out the new energy infrastructure. But ‘we’re just orders of magnitude lower than where we need to be,’ she said. ‘And I think that that fight over the scale and scope of what needs to happen in terms of employment and the creation of jobs, in terms of the scale of investment and the urgency, is going to be a terrain of struggle as this plan gets debated and discussed in Congress.’ She’s surely right about that, and I fear there’s likely to be as much pressure to reduce the spending as to increase it.
“The question of whether it’s ‘enough’ is, of course, the right one—and the answer is no. Summer sea-ice coverage in the Arctic has declined by fifty per cent since the nineteen-eighties, and there were a record thirty named tropical storms last year, with one of them, off the New England coast, nudging up against smoke coming from the wildfires on the other side of the country, in California. We should be investing every penny we can in green projects, and even then we would still face an ongoing rise in temperature. That’s why movements need to keep pushing hard to build support for climate action.
“But another test of whether this spending is sufficient will come in the next couple of months as we watch for decisions from Washington on big projects such as the Line 3 tar-sands pipeline, which stretches across Minnesota. One would hope that a two-trillion-dollar jobs program—with all kinds of promises about union contracts—would buy enough good will with organized labor for Biden to get away with killing these projects. Politicians like building things more than they like shutting things down, but dealing with the climate crisis requires doing both, and if this generous new proposal gives Biden the freedom to act aggressively, then we’d get a double return on the investment.
“The Administration faces similar tensions on other fronts. John Kerry, the global climate czar, has been working Wall Street in recent weeks, trying to get the financial giants on board before a global climate summit that the Administration has called for April 22nd. The banks are happy to make proclamations about their net-zero plans for 2050, and they’re happy to pledge lots of lending into the suddenly trending renewables sector, but they’re not happy about stopping their lending to the fossil-fuel industry. Like the building trades, they’d be most thrilled about making money off both the old and the new. And, of course, that would be fine, except for physics.”
(Bill McKibben; in April 7, 2021, edition of “The Climate Crisis,” an email newsletter of The New Yorker Magazine)