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“This Is Not a Climate Bill”: Leah Stokes on Why Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal Doesn’t Go Far Enough

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Senate Democrats have announced that they have joined with 17 Republicans to vote in favor of taking up a $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal. The plan includes new spending on climate and environment measures, but critics say it falls far short of what is needed. Democrats say they hope to include additional climate measures in a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package that could advance without being blocked by a Republican filibuster if it is backed by all 50 Democrats. Climate and energy policy researcher Leah Stokes says the bipartisan bill does include positive measures but nowhere near enough. “There are some good investments and important things, but they are in many cases cents on the dollar,” she says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. If you want to get the Democracy Now! newsletter every day, our Daily Digest, send the word “democracynow” — one word — text it to 66866. That’s “democracynow” to 66866.

The Senate has voted to open debate on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that includes some new spending on climate and environment measures, but critics say it falls short of what’s needed. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tried to reassure progressives during a news conference outside the Capitol.

MAJORITY LEADER CHUCK SCHUMER: As majority leader, I have made it clear I will not pass an infrastructure package that does not reduce carbon pollution at a scale commensurate with the urgency of the climate crisis we face, plain and simple. And that’s what Democrats intend to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Schumer was standing in front of a sign that said “Climate Action Now,” next to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a number of others. Democrats say they hope to include additional climate measures in a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, that could advance without being blocked by a Republican filibuster if it’s backed by all 50 Democrats. But now Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema, the lead Democratic negotiator for the infrastructure deal, said Wednesday she will reject the three-and-a-half trillion-dollar proposal. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called her, quote, “very courageous,” while Democratic Congressmember Rashida Tlaib wrote on Twitter, “Sinema seems not to care that her own state is flooding, the west is burning, and infrastructure around the country is crumbling. Sinema is more interested in gaining GOP friends and blocking much needed resources, than fighting for her residents’ future,” Rashida Tlaib said.

For more, we’re joined by Leah Stokes, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a researcher on climate and energy policy. Her piece out in The Atlantic magazine is headlined “The Infrastructure Bill Won’t Cut It on Climate.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Professor. When we last spoke to you in June, the Senate was still trying to reach a bipartisan agreement on a new infrastructure plan. Now it looks like they’ve announced a deal. But in your new piece, you write it’s insufficient to address the climate crisis, and say, “We cannot address a small sliver of our carbon pollution and call it a victory.” Can you start off by going through what people in this country are confronting — the fires, droughts, the flooding — as well as its connection to around the world, from Siberia and beyond?

LEAH STOKES: Absolutely. You know, the last month has been brutal when it comes to extreme weather events across the United States, and really across the whole planet. We saw, at the end of June, record heats, temperatures, in places like Portland and Seattle, just smashing records, you know, buckling roads, killing more than 800 people — likely, that number will go up, the more we learn — and, you know, also killing a billion organisms in the ocean that cannot handle these kinds of high heat temperatures in a region that’s never experienced it before.

In addition, around 60 million Americans are currently facing drought in the West. That stretches from Montana all the way down to New Mexico and to the coast. And that drought, which is really unprecedented in something like 400 years, according to scientists, that drought is also fueling a pretty bad wildfire season, that’s already creating huge fires, like the Dixie Fire in Northern California, in July. Normally, we see these kinds of fires much later in the season.

And then we’ve also seen devastating extreme precipitation events, which has led to flooding in places like the New York subway system, highways in Detroit, parts of Texas. And that flooding is not just happening in the United States. It seems like every time you look around, another part of the world has flooded, whether it’s Japan, where there were mudslides, or China, where the entire subway system in certain parts of the country was inundated with water, India, Ghana. Of course, people saw really terrifying images from Germany, as well as London. You know, you can take a trip around the world and find the insane flooding events happening.

And that is climate change, because it turns out that as we heat up the planet, certain parts of our planet where it’s warmer, that warmer air holds more water. And so, scientists have been telling us for a long time that these extreme downpours leading to rapid flooding is something that’s going to happen under the climate crisis. So it’s been a very tough month, I think, for people all around the planet.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Professor Stokes, talk about what you think needs to be done. What is it — you’ve argued that the U.S. at least has to move to 80%, go up to 80% clean electricity in the next decade. What are the other climate investments that need to be made here? And what would you like to see elsewhere in the world?

LEAH STOKES: Well, President Biden put forward a pretty good plan at the end of March to address the climate crisis. It’s called the American Jobs Plan. And it was a plan to spend something between $2 trillion and $3 trillion on the climate crisis. And that’s really what I want to see enacted into law through the budget reconciliation process that Majority Leader Schumer was talking about in your clip. That’s the process where we can go forward with 50 votes in the Senate.

What would be in that big climate bill that we hope to pass later this summer alongside the bipartisan bill? Well, first, we would need to clean up our electricity system. We want to get to 80% clean power by 2030. That’s double the amount of clean power we have today, and it would massively cut carbon pollution, as well as nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, what we call conventional air pollution, things that make people sick. So that’s a really important thing. And we can do that through two policies: first, extending these tax credits for renewables, as well as other clean technologies, and, second, through a clean electricity standard, a policy that says to utilities, “Hey, you’ve got to get cleaning up your system. You have to be hitting that 80% clean target by 2030.” And the good news is that the White House and Schumer and people like Pelosi in the House have been very clear that these are top line items, that they will be working to get those in the package.

Now, we’ve got to do the same thing for transportation and for buildings, for other parts of our economy that create a lot of pollution. We can clean up transportation through things like electric buses and school buses, as well as public transit, electric vehicles, charging infrastructure. We can clean up our buildings through things like programs that help people buy an induction stove or a heat pump. And all of these policies will actually drive down emissions while also investing in everyday American people and job creation in this country. So, that’s really the vision that I think we need to see from Congress this summer.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And so, in that thing, could you talk about what the budget reconciliation package, the $3.5 trillion, that Bernie Sanders, Senator Bernie Sanders, in his role as the head of the Budget Committee, has been working on — what the status of that is and what you think that might achieve?

LEAH STOKES: Absolutely. So, that package, which would be a very bold investment in the American economy, that package is a combination of two plans that the Biden administration put forward: the American Families Plan, which focuses on things like healthcare and child care, really important investments, alongside the American Jobs Plan, which I mentioned was a very big bold climate package that President Biden put forward earlier this year. So it’s a combination of investing in people, in their health, investing in the planet, investing in job creation. It’s a really good idea.

So, what exactly is in that package? We don’t know yet. That’s been negotiated for the past several weeks. But Majority Leader Schumer has suggested, as has Senator Sanders, that perhaps next week we will start to have votes on that bill moving forward. And that is where we would find the clean electricity standard, those tax credits for renewables that I talked about, things like a Civilian Climate Corps that the Sunrise Movement has been pushing for, investments in clean buildings, investments in clean transit, you know, funding for worker transition, funding for rural co-ops — these are electric co-ops who have some challenges and need to retire their fossil fuel debt — and so on and so forth, including important investments in environmental justice and cleaning up our polluted air. So, that’s the big bold package. And there’s a lot of things that we have to do if we want to get on top of clean air, as well as the climate crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Senator Sanders talking about investing in a Civilian Climate Corps.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: We’re going to put many, many billions of dollars in a Civilian Climate Corps. Now, you know what that means to them? We’re going to give them decent salaries and educational benefits, whether it’s the ability to go to college or pay off their debt, in order to get involved, rolling up their sleeves, whether it’s dealing in California with forest issues, whether it’s weatherization in homes, whether it’s working for the Park Service, whatever it may be. Young people will have the opportunity to lead our country and the world in saving this planet. I’m very excited about that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Senator Sanders. He’s actually speaking there to Congressmember Ro Khanna. But I wanted to ask you — you’ve got the three-and-a-half trillion-dollar reconciliation bill, that it looks like Senator Sinema of Arizona is going to try to torpedo, because you need all 50 Democrats and she’s now saying she won’t support it. And Nancy Pelosi says she will not consider the deal, the bipartisan deal, unless they also vote on the three-and-a-half trillion. So, let’s go to the bipartisan deal, that was just voted on last night to at least open debate. In response to the Senate vote on the infrastructure bill Wednesday, Greenpeace USA’s climate campaign director Janet Redman said in a statement, “[T]his looks like the Exxon Infrastructure Bill corporate lobbyists were persuading their contacts in Congress to pass … Oil companies seem to have succeeded in undermining any meaningful climate action in this bill in order to protect their profits at the cost of our health and safety.” I mean, Greenpeace shreds this so-called bipartisan bill. Can you talk about your thoughts? You, essentially, do the same.

LEAH STOKES: Yeah. You know, look, I’m a little bit more positive about the bipartisan bill, because I think there are critical investments we have to make in our infrastructure. Engineers and societies have been telling us for years that we have to invest in roads and bridges. And so, that might not be the top of my wish list, because I care deeply about the climate crisis, but I can also understand why that’s an important thing to invest in. And there are a couple things that are climate-oriented in the bipartisan bill.

My point is that this is not a climate bill, though, and I’ll explain why. So, for example, we have some investments in public transit, in clean water, in scaling up transmission infrastructure, which is absolutely critical to bringing clean energy sort of from the center of the country to the coasts. And actually, the transmission investment is something I think we can be pretty proud of, because it’s probably $28 billion, and that’s quite necessary.

But let’s talk, for example, about what it does on transit and electrification. President Biden proposed to spend about $50 billion to create 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles. The bipartisan bill proposes to spend $7.5 billion. So that’s about 15% of his goal, OK? Then we take school buses, an absolutely critical issue for children’s health. When kids are riding on these school buses that are using oil to, you know, propel them around, they’re creating a lot of bad air pollution, and kids are breathing that in. It’s not good for asthma. It’s not good for their respiratory health. So Biden had proposed to spend $20 billion, which would have converted about 20% of our school buses to electric. But the bipartisan infrastructure deal came in again at about 10% of his plan, so just $2.5 billion. And that’s terrible, because it means we’re only going to electrify around 8,000 school buses, or about 3% of the fleet. And just last month, while this bipartisan bill was being negotiated, we are expecting four times as much spending on electrifying school buses. So that is a terrible decision. In addition, we can say, on public transit, the bipartisan bill does about $39 billion; Biden proposed $85 [billion]. That’s about half. The same for lead pipes and water infrastructure. Biden proposed $100 billion, north of, and we got about $55 [billion], so about half.

So, the reality is, there are some good investments in important things, but they are in many cases cents on the dollar. And that is why we have to really hold the line and say that the budget reconciliation process has to be a bold climate bill. And if your listeners are interested in calling the Senate and actually saying, “Hey, we need climate action now,” there’s a great website called “Call,” with the number 4, “climate.com,” and if you go to Call4Climate.com, you can get patched through your senators, and you can say, “Hey, this is not enough. We actually need a bold climate bill this summer.”

AMY GOODMAN: Leah Stokes, we want to thank you so much for being with us, associate professor of political science at University of California, Santa Barbara, researcher on climate and energy policy. We’ll link to your piece in The Atlantic magazine, “The Infrastructure Bill Won’t Cut It on Climate.”

And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for our video production fellowship and our digital fellowship here in our New York City studio. You can learn more and apply at democracynow.org.

Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Adriano Contreras. Our general manager is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Stay safe.

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