After months of legislative negotiations, the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure bill made it through Congress and was signed by President Biden.
While it is a measure focused on building and repairing roads and bridges, media outlets have said that the legislation is the most significant piece of climate legislation to ever come out of Congress.
It then begs the question is this the high-water mark for the Biden Administration’s efforts to fight against climate change?
It’s Infrastructure Week…
To be clear, the Infrastructure bill is not a cure all for our climate related problems. Most noticeably it does not have an economy wide measure on climate change, such as a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax. It does, however, put more resources into programs and projects that lower carbon emissions and speed up the energy transition including:
- $150 billion for clean energy advancement and adaptation to the effects of climate change
- $73 billion for modernizing the U.S. electricity grid, which will increase the transmission of wind and solar power
- $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations,
Commentators note that these measures surpass previous efforts, like the 2009 Stimulus, in terms of investment in clean energy projects.
The legislation adds another area of focus to Biden’s previous efforts on climate change. Since January, the White House has addressed the issue primarily through making appointments, signing executive orders, and issuing regulations.
Storm Clouds on the Horizon
While the White House enjoys this moment, tougher times lie ahead. Consider what is happening with the Reconciliation bill. The measure requires a simple majority in the House of Representatives and Senate yet is in legislative limbo*. If the legislation is passed the U.S. would spend an additional $555 billion on climate related projects. While it could be voted on by the House of Representatives in November or December there is no guarantee it will have the support of Democratic Senators Joe Manchin or Kirsten Sinema, which are needed to pass it.
Moreover, it has already been stripped of some of its stronger climate proposals; Manchin successfully pushed to have a carbon tax and Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) removed.
If passing legislation has been tough with the current Congress things do not look any easier for the midterm elections.
In past years, such as 2005, 2009 and 2017, the governor’s race in Virginia has foretold of a coming political wave that hit the party in control of Congress in the next election. If the Democrat’s loss in Virginia is any sign, Biden’s party risks losing control of one or both Houses of Congress. This would make it highly unlikely any new climate related legislation would be passed in 2023 or 2024. In fact, we will likely see attempts to challenge or roll back what the administration has accomplished.
More than one way forward?
It can be said that Biden has tried reposition America as a world leader in the fight against climate change through a patchwork of smaller proposals. For several reasons these actions, and not a more comprehensive proposal, is as much as Biden will be able to accomplish.
First, Biden does not control Congress even though his party is in the majority. Unlike a parliamentary system, in the U.S. power is diffused between branches of government. This enables representatives, even members of Biden’s party, to use legislative procedures to slow down or stop measures from becoming law. President Obama, who and enjoyed larger Democratic majorities in Congress, faced these same legislative obstacles and failed to pass sweeping climate change legislation.
Second, there may not be the political will to go further. Recent surveys show that voters are more focused on issues like the economy, immigration, and pandemic. With control of Congress up for grabs next year the Democratic leadership may decide it is better to focus on addressing those issues instead of climate change.
Lastly, within the Congressional Democratic majority there are disagreements about how to move forward. Some on the left favor sweeping measures like the Green New Deal. However, moderates in the U.S. Senate, like John Hickenlooper and Mark Kelly, join Senators Sinema and Manchin in opposing a more expansive climate program. Given these divisions it is hard to see the how the Democratic caucus unites around legislative proposals that go beyond what has been accomplished.
Faced with this situation, Biden and climate advocates would be wise to accept that this as much as could be accomplished legislatively in the current political environment. That does not mean the issue is on hold until 2024 but instead that the focus should shift to other areas.
Even during tougher political environments, such as during the Trump Presidency, efforts to address climate change continued but were focused more on engagement with state and local governments, companies, investors, and pension funds. A similar strategy now is likely to yield the best results for accelerating the energy transition and the movement away from fossil fuels over the next two-to-three years and enabling greater action when the national political climate improves.
* As of publishing this piece