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.