After decades of broken promises, and then years of Trump-era memes riffing on those broken promises, the United States has finally hit a long-elusive milestone: It’s really, actually infrastructure week. Perhaps more importantly, though, for the Biden agenda and the planet—and despite legitimate complaints from the bill’s critics—this landmark event can also plausibly be described as green infrastructure week.
On Friday night, the House of Representatives passed the mammoth hard infrastructure and climate bill known generally as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, or BIF, after a concession from progressives who’d wanted the bill passed alongside the more climate- and family-focused Build Back Better legislation. The $1.2 trillion bill will go to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature next week after lawmakers return from a brief recess.
The chief executive is certainly psyched about the bill’s potential climate impact—after passage, he stated that the bill would “turn the climate crisis into an opportunity.” With the bill’s passage having been rushed last week to show some American progress on climate change to the world, Biden and his allies are hoping to frame BIF as a climate bill that can be an example for other nations at the ongoing United Nations climate conference.
Many climate activists reject those characterizations, of course. The bill has been criticized, ever since it passed the Senate in trimmed-down form in August, as a corporate-influenced giveaway that doesn’t prioritize equity, and that will do more to help car companies than to battle climate change. Most of the bill’s initial green priorities were shifted to the still-unpassed Build Back Better proposal, and later cut to about $500 billion worth of investments in the current BBB framework.
Let’s get this out of the way: Even in their original, gargantuan multitrillion-dollar forms, neither BIF nor BBB was going to save the world or even fully decarbonize the U.S. Still, the passage of BIF means that some of the biggest climate spending measures this country has ever negotiated, along with some provisions that have been long out of reach, will soon be a reality. It’s worth looking not only at what climate activists have won, but figuring out how they can maximize and extend the bill’s impact for decades to come.
There are a lot of details to sift through here, but here are some top-line numbers:
• $47 billion in unprecedented resilience initiatives to protect communities from disasters like wildfires, floods, and droughts;
• $21 billion to clean polluted environments, especially those that hurt communities of color, while also capping abandoned gas wells and repurposing lands previously used for mining;
• $55 billion to protect and clean drinking water sources and pipes, and make wastewater management more energy-efficient;
• $39 billion to continue and expand current public transit programs, including by helping states and cities purchase zero- or low-emission buses and improving accessibility standards;
• $66 billion to fix Amtrak and build out its service along the Northwest Corridor, in addition to tens of millions for high-speed rail and other commuter rail;
• $5 billion for the Safe Streets for All program, meant to protect cyclists, pedestrians, and other non-car-users;
• $5 billion for new school buses, including electric and hybrid and natural gas and biofuel models;
• $25 billion to repair airports, reduce their congestion and emissions, and promote the use of low-carbon flight tech.
Out of the bill’s $1.2 trillion price tag, about $300 billion can fairly be described as going toward environmentally sustainable projects. Cities and states that have already innovated on their own to try to protect against the worst effects of climate change will get a much-needed boost with the resilience, water, grid, and transit appropriations. Electric vehicles may yet get the support they need to break through the automobile market and replace heavy-polluting models. Clean energy will further embed itself in all aspects all daily life, from school commutes to home power, and become more normalized in the public imagination. Improved public transit and high-speed rail, a fixture of most developed countries besides the U.S., could get more people out of their gas-guzzling cars. If they still need those cars, it’ll be more convenient to switch to an EV with the increased availability of charging stations. Cleaning up toxic pollution will help the administration work toward its purported goals of environmental justice and transform poisoned areas into sustainable communities. Crucially, the revenue sources to pay for the legislation (leaving aside accounting gimmicks) will play into emissions goals as well, including fees applied to polluting corporations and increased tax reporting requirements for investors who deal in the energy-swallowing cryptocurrency industry.
The infrastructure bill is clearly just one step toward rebuilding out of our troublingly recent history of neglect. The point of progressives continuing to pursue Build Back Better will be to further complement and extend the BIF measures, through massive green energy subsidies and updates to school infrastructure, among other things. If BBB fails, as progressives fear it might, then simply pointing to the infrastructure bill as the U.S.’s first major climate-branded legislation will come off to other nations as rather limp stuff from Biden, who promised to make his nation a global climate leader. Progressives and climate-conscious world leaders won’t be the only ones disappointed if this is the only law. Already, electric vehicle manufacturers are claiming BIF won’t provide nearly enough support for them to manufacture and sell EVs at scale, much less to meet Biden’s goals of constructing a half-million charging stations and getting half of American car drivers into e-vehicles by 2030. Similar complaints about funding insufficiency have been sounded by passenger rail experts.
Nevertheless, we do finally have some major climate investment on the way, with possibly more to come. There’s also the importance of the U.S. even having one piece of legislation that can be substantively referred to as a “climate bill.” During his campaign, Biden talked up his introduction of a failed climate law in 1986, prior to his first presidential run and before global warming garnered more governmental attention; it’s also worth remembering he was vice president when President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan was scuttled by the Supreme Court, and when the 2010 cap-and-trade bill couldn’t get through a Senate with a bigger Democratic majority than that which Biden enjoys today. The president must realize that, in the recent past, U.S. climate action has always had to be shoehorned into economic stimulus packages with messaging focused away from the environment—and even then, funds delegated for systems like high-speed rail were sometimes rejected by individual states. But now, with the passage of the BIF, not only are the climate provisions announced front and center, but states are already figuring out how to best use these funds: Minnesota is ready for more EV chargers, while Oregon and Hawaii want more cycles and scooters, and to reduce road congestion. But it’s not just blue states—even West Virginians are excited, while Alaskans seem to want more public transit, and Nebraskans are looking to have their wastewater equipment undergo massive improvements. And purple state Michiganders, long resigned to the infamously horrid conditions of their roads, are about to get some relief.
Yes, the infrastructure bill is not enough, and if Build Back Better passes, it will far and away be the more transformative climate bill, even in its whittled form. But BIF is still a landmark in countless ways, from the sectors it targets, to its branding and messaging, to its unprecedented investments in a livable, sustainable future. There’s much more work to be done—but thankfully, there’s finally something to start working with now.