To understand how President Joe Biden’s new $2 trillion infrastructure plan announced Wednesday will shape the fight against climate change, it’s tempting to look through the 25-page document and start tallying the dollars devoted to climate-specific programs. From investments in the electric grid to funding for research and development, the plan devotes hundreds of billions of dollars directly to tackling climate change.
But the White House officials charged with leading the Administration’s climate policy say the plan’s strategy to reduce emissions and prepare the country for the effects of a warming planet is more than the sum of the programs with climate in the name. Understanding how the Biden Administration plans to use the infrastructure bill to tackle climate change, they say, requires looking at how climate considerations are included in the details of a range of proposals in the plan, from manufacturing to housing.
“A misleading way to think about all this is to think that climate action can live on its own island and economic policy is part of the continent,” Ali Zaidi, the Deputy White House National Climate Advisor, told TIME in a March 23 interview. “The output of good economic policy is good climate outcomes.”
To that end, the vast majority of the economic programs included in the package—dubbed the American Jobs Plan—have a climate component. Take the proposal to rebuild the nation’s transportation infrastructure, which at $621 billion, is its biggest line item. The money would fund repairs and renovations to the country’s roads, bridges and airports. None of this inherently helps address climate change; in fact, roads, bridges and airports all facilitate high-carbon forms of transportation.
But the plan calls for renovating transportation infrastructure with “sustainable and innovative” materials, including “cleaner” steel and cement. The details of the cement and steel standard remain to be seen, but a federal push to cut emissions from those two carbon intensive products would have ripple effects across a wide array of industries. The plan also prioritizes modernizations that would reduce traffic and, in turn, wasteful energy consumption.
“There’s nothing like actual infrastructure to actually make jobs happen, and really good, well-paying union jobs, but [Biden] is also looking at, ‘what does it mean for climate change?'” says Gina McCarthy, the White House National Climate Advisor. “‘What are we building? What are we investing in?'”
The plan takes a similar approach with a slew of smaller items. The plan calls for an $18 billion investment in Veterans Affairs facilities, similarly stressing that the new hospitals will be built with low-carbon materials and also powered by clean energy. Biden proposes spending $40 billion on training programs for out-of-work Americans with an emphasis on jobs in the clean energy sector. And the plan calls for $100 billion to improve public schools, including by building energy-efficient schools. “We need to build our physical infrastructure in a way that’s more climate resilient,” says Zaidi, “because that’s sound economic policy.”
None of that is to say the proposal is light on dedicated climate proposals. The Administration calls for $174 billion to help advance domestic production of electric vehicles and $35 billion for climate-related research and development, for example. Those big ticket items sit alongside smaller but significant proposals like the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps that would create jobs by employing people to conserve public lands and the start of a new program to hire people to plug oil and gas wells across the country. The value alone of these climate-focused programs—easily totaling in the hundreds of billions of dollars—would make the American Jobs Plan the biggest ever single U.S. investment in tackling climate change.
Beyond the spending measures, the plan also includes a proposal for a new clean electricity standard. A version of the policy, which would require a certain percentage of electricity to come from clean sources, has been implemented in some form in dozens of states and has become a favorite of environmental groups in the past year as political tides have turned against carbon taxes and other carbon pricing mechanisms. A senior administration official said on Thursday that Biden “intends to work with Congress” to figure out the details of how such a policy would work.
The Administration’s approach to the infrastructure package mirrors its “whole of government” strategy on climate more broadly. Instead of pursuing a landmark piece of climate legislation—like President Barack Obama did in his first term—Biden has sought to infuse climate considerations across the federal government, from the obvious players like the Environmental Protection Agency to the less obvious ones like the Department of Education.
“We can use the breadth of the agencies across the federal government, not just their ability to help us invest in the right strategies, establish the right standards,” says McCarthy. “But also we procure a lot of products and services. We can actually send the signal that climate change is important to us. We’re going to follow the science. And we’re going to help drive a continued investment in clean energy technology.”
The approach is in part an acknowledgment that climate change is a thorny issue that touches every part of the economy and society. It also reflects the political reality that implementing ambitious climate policies alone will almost certainly face roadblocks from Republicans and in federal court. Instead of relying on one bold measure that can be reversed by a future administration, Biden’s approach incorporates climate policy everywhere, making it harder to undo.
It remains to be seen how an infrastructure package with climate embedded in it will play in Congress. On the one hand, a bipartisan group of lawmakers say the country is long overdue for significant federal infrastructure investment. And, while many Republicans remain opposed to most things climate-tinged, there is widespread agreement that the country needs to invest in resilience to climate disasters and, to some degree, innovation. Just last December, for example, Congress passed $40 billion in spending on clean energy incentives as part of a COVID-19 relief package that Trump signed into law.
Still, the sheer scale of the proposal and its unambiguous climate messaging is certain to raise some objections, and some Republicans haven’t even begun to dust off their tried-and-true talking points used in the not-so-distant past to criticize calls for a Green New Deal.
Some have suggested that Senate Democrats might turn again to budget reconciliation, the procedural maneuver they used to push through the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill earlier this month. That would allow the bill to pass along party lines, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote, but it would further undermine Biden’s campaign promise to seek greater bipartisan cooperation. (McCarthy told TIME that Biden is “going to want to engage every member of Congress on the legislation.”)
A senior Administration official on Tuesday declined to specify how the Administration’s planned to get the plan passed, but suggested an outreach effort has already begun. “This is the beginning of a process,” the official said. But Biden “is uncompromising about is the urgency of the moment.”
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