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For Democrats, infrastructure equals fighting climate change, creating jobs

Joe Biden is putting an infrastructure proposal that calls significant green investments front-and-center in his campaign

Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., hold a news conference on the Green New Deal Resolution outside the Capitol on Feb. 7, 2019.
Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., hold a news conference on the Green New Deal Resolution outside the Capitol on Feb. 7, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In Democratic politics, infrastructure and fighting climate change have become increasingly synonymous: You can’t have one without the other.

Take the $494 billion surface transportation bill that House Democrats passed July 1. Republicans criticized it as an outgrowth of the Green New Deal. Democrats embraced it for the same reason, with House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., insisting that climate change “is absolutely key for my side of the aisle.”

The Democrats’ 2020 standard-bearer, Vice President Joe Biden, is putting front-and-center in his campaign his “Build Back Better” infrastructure proposal that calls not only for building roads and bridges but also for investments in electric vehicle charging stations, zero-emission buses, transit and zero-carbon electricity generation by 2035.

Then, of course, there’s the Green New Deal, the 2019 nonbinding resolution that laid out a plan for dealing with climate change introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass. That plan called for the federal government to wean the United States from fossil fuels and slash greenhouse gas emissions in part via a comprehensive investment in clean infrastructure.

[Spending bill would extend highway law by a year]

Combined, the plans indicate how thoroughly Democrats see the two issues as intricately interwoven.

“You are seeing the development of a common purpose among Democrats for the future of infrastructure policy,” said Adie Tomer, head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “This is one area where almost universally the party agrees.”

Voter support

Two-thirds of registered voters said they either strongly supported or somewhat supported the concept of a multitrillion-dollar stimulus that prioritized investment in clean energy infrastructure in a poll released Wednesday by The Guardian, VICE Media Group and Covering Climate Now by Climate Nexus, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

Fifty-six percent surveyed said the federal government should increase spending on climate-resilient infrastructure to protect Americans from flooding, hurricanes and wildfires while providing relief to those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. And 61 percent said they would only vote for or be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports a multitrillion-dollar stimulus that prioritized investment in clean energy infrastructure.

Barry Rabe, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Michigan, said by linking climate change to infrastructure, Democrats could pitch climate change as an economic stimulus that will create jobs.

But he said Democrats have offered no plan for how to pay for such investments, and they have not come up with a clear proposal to replace the gas tax, which has been the traditional source of funding for surface transportation infrastructure.

“On one hand, in terms of initial public perception, it can be attractive because you’re allowing each citizen to paint with their imagination what it will be like,” he said. But the challenge, he added, becomes: “Are you ever going to have enough money to satisfy every constituency?”

He’s skeptical that the issue will ultimately move voters.

“I still tend to think in most elections we’re largely voting on the incumbent as opposed to the package of policy options being presented,” he said.

Marc Scribner, a senior transportation analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, warns that linking infrastructure to other issues could make controversial something that both parties would otherwise support.

“Everyone is in favor of the concept of infrastructure, or at the very least the word infrastructure,” Scribner said. “It’s when you start getting into the specifics of what kind of infrastructure you build, where you build it — and the big one no one wants to answer, how do you pay for it — that’s when you get into difficulties.”

GOP response

Devin Hartman, director of energy and environmental policy at the libertarian R Street Institute, said Democrats are increasingly attaching both climate and equity issues “to every possible discrete policy category,” including infrastructure.

Democrats, he said, “are kind of seeing what sticks” and painting everything with a green tint.

Republicans have acknowledged climate impact largely via an embrace of resilient infrastructure, and the GOP-controlled Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last July made news by including a climate title in its surface transportation bill.

President Donald Trump, a real estate investor by trade, has emphasized infrastructure repeatedly since the 2016 campaign but has not been able to pass a comprehensive infrastructure plan. His focus, however, is on rebuilding, not on addressing climate change.

And Republicans have been largely antagonistic of the Green New Deal. When the House debated the surface transportation bill this summer, Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, dismissed the proposal as largely Democratic climate change messaging.

“If this were a serious effort, we wouldn’t be talking about tacking a multitude of unreasonable Green New Deal mandates onto our transportation programs,” he said during debate on the bill.

Still, polling data suggest the public is increasingly prioritizing climate change.

A national Quinnipiac University poll in August found that 56 percent of registered voters nationwide believed climate change to be an emergency, and 67 percent of voters said more needs to be done on the issue — a new high since the question was first asked in December 2015.

And a U.S. Conference of Mayors survey of voters ages 18-29 released in January found that 80 percent surveyed consider climate change “a major threat to human life on earth as we know it.”

The business community is also embracing the need to do more: Earlier this month, the Business Roundtable, a lobbying group of CEOs from some of the largest U.S. companies, publicly backed market-based carbon pricing, often characterized as a carbon tax, and efforts to cut down U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2050.

Thomas Smith, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said the recent wildfires and devastating storms have “accelerated the urgency” to invest in resilient infrastructure. The ASCE’s push for increased infrastructure investment has increasingly focused on mitigation by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation by creating infrastructure resilient to severe weather events. While both parties have embraced investing in resilient infrastructure, they are less simpatico on how to prioritize mitigation, Smith said.

Daniel Bresette, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute in Washington, argues that any long-term infrastructure plan has to consider both mitigation and adaptation.

“We’re building this stuff to last,” he said. “And that means we have to think it through from an emissions perspective. Are we building infrastructure that will contribute to emissions reduction or that will impede emissions reduction?”

To fully transition to a clean energy economy, “we’re going to need a complete rethinking of how we invest and where we invest in infrastructure,” Bresette said.

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