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How the Infrastructure Bill Fails the Climate Crisis

Environmental leaders came together to insert climate-conscious policy into economic development, infrastructure, social equity proposals, but much of that collaborative work is missing from the bipartisan deal.

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Have you ever had your paycheck show up… short?

You put in countless, meaningful hours on the job, work overtime, budget for what bills could be paid this pay period, and finally set aside enough cash to replace the back door only to open that paycheck and find the amount is less—much less—than you expected. It is both devastating and frustrating.

But that is exactly the experience environment and climate leaders faced when reviewing the bipartisan deal on infrastructure presented by Senate Republicans, Democrats, and administration officials. Climate initiatives were cut short, while some categories like research and development, building infrastructure, and manufacturing were completely zeroed out. The proposed energy line to support things like electric grid stabilization and clean energy was reduced by almost $400 million. Not to mention workforce development, which could include environmental justice initiatives for underserved communities, was decimated. Stripping these key climate-related elements out of the American Jobs Plan makes a bipartisan deal possible, but it ignores months of intense, collaborative work done by environmental justice groups, mainstream “big green” organizations, and progressive, youth-focused movements to craft policies that support and represent the most people. It wasn’t easy for all of those players to align on values, but we found a way to promote climate action as part of job growth, economic development, and social equity—and voters turned out as a result. Now, in the infamous words of Lunch Money Lewis, “We got bills… We gotta pay!”, and the American people cannot afford to have their climate paycheck cut.

According to tabulation from the Living Economy Director, Ben Beachy, of the Sierra Club, climate and environment-related investments were short to the tune of $2.1 trillion. The first proposed American Jobs Plan totaled roughly $2.7 trillion and included funding for critical environment and climate initiatives such as water, clean energy, and pollution controls that would help address racial and environmental injustices across the country. But the revised bipartisan agreement is only $973 billion and does not account for any “social” infrastructure—elements of physical infrastructure that include sectors such as workforce development, schools, and hospitals. This is not what was promised to the American people when campaigning on climate change, economic recovery, and jobs. The Biden “Build Back Better” plan is clearly stated to construct a “modern, sustainable infrastructure and an equitable clean energy future.” Nevertheless, it appears the very items compromised out of the American Jobs Plan are the items necessary to achieve the equitable and clean energy future we deserve and need.

One such area that was left out of the bipartisan plan was building improvement. The Build Back Better Plan (BBB) calls for investment into building upgrades, with a target of reaching 4 million buildings and the weatherization of 2 million homes over four years. In addition to creating jobs, the focus on buildings would spur efficiency and resiliency retrofits that would cut both residential and commercial energy bills. In conjunction with possible local and state credits, such as residential energy efficiency tax credits, income tax deductions for energy-efficient products, or business energy efficiency rebates ,it would also create opportunities for essential climate preparedness efforts at little to no cost. But in the revised bipartisan plan, the funding for buildings, which would have included construction, maintenance, and energy-efficiency initiatives for things like hospitals and affordable housing, was taken out altogether.

There is nowhere more evident of this need than in Surfside, Florida where 11 people are dead and at least 150 are missing after a residential building collapsed for no apparent reason. While engineers, residents, and witnesses are piecing together an explanation for this tragic event, indications of structural deterioration going back at least 10 years are beginning to surface. Even more concerning is the role of climate change and rising sea level as a destabilizing factor for buildings along the Florida coast. Saltwater intrusion has long been a problem for coastal builders as seawater has the potential to accelerate the corrosion of concrete and steel. While newer materials and innovations are finding ways to prevent rapid corrosion, buildings that were built 30-40 years ago are still at risk of rapid decline. If we stick to the original American Jobs Plan numbers as outlined by the Biden administration, it would go a long way to address issues of building resiliency in communities like Surfside and possibly—save lives.

Another missed opportunity from the BBB plan is innovation—moving to clean energy through a carbon- and pollution-free power sector. Believe it or not, scientists have shown that there is a pathway to saving ourselves from the drastic and irreversible impacts of global warming. Reaching net-zero carbon emissions by at least mid-century is the goal. Still, mid-century is not that far away, and in order to achieve it, we will need public and private investments into research, development, and clean energy as well as civic and environmental justice engagement to ensure the solutions are equitable and provide opportunities to rectify environmental injustices. Unfortunately, the bipartisan deal reduced the energy investment by almost $400 billion dollars—from $469 billion to a paltry $73 billion. Research and development investment was reduced to zero. Items on the chopping block included roughly $35 billion for climate research and development, $30 billion for rural communities, and $25 billion for HBCUs and MSIs (historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions). The effects on environmental justice and equity could be astounding. These are funds that could have been leveraged against existing private funds already committed to supporting climate and innovative programs within these institutions. Apple, for example, has pledged $100 million dollars to advance racial equity and justice including development of HBCU hubs across the country. Imagine the dollar leverage, local impact, and opportunity to reverse system racism in technology, education, and environmental innovation through a public/private partnership that could have made use of American Jobs Plan dollars. These are not hopes and dreams, but real dollars with real people and real opportunity to meet climate goals while improving the economic wellbeing of our communities through collaboration. That’s why the American Jobs Plan is a good thing, and we must support it to the fullest extent possible. We must undertake bold climate action now if we are to avoid catastrophic events like extreme weather and heat in the not-so-distant future. This is also the first shot at eliminating historic and systemic racial inequities to give marginalized people a chance to create generational wealth in a way that was previously unavailable. But what we cannot do is leverage away our future. We’ve worked too hard and have too little time left to debate the need. Climate action is no longer up for negotiation.

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