Biden’s Infrastructure Plan a Good Start, but Lacks Capacity to Address Climate Crisis

Interview with Natalie Mebane, U.S. policy director, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

President Joe Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” proposes spending $2 trillion over eight years for everything — from repairing roads and bridges to replacing lead drinking water pipes, to providing funds for living wages to caregivers. The plan, if implemented, would also improve transit, rail and broadband. The cost of the infrastructure plan would be paid for by raising the corporate tax halfway back to 35 percent, what it was before Donald Trump’s massive corporate tax giveaway, that is, by raising it from 21 percent to 28 percent. Although due to various loopholes, no corporation paid anything close to that rate, and some major corporations paid no taxes at all.

Some on the left are celebrating the fact that Biden is calling for increased spending that will favor lower-income Americans and create lots of good-paying jobs. Others say $2 trillion over eight years is nowhere near what’s needed, and point to some progressive groups — and Sen. Bernie Sanders — who maintain that $16 trillion in infrastructure spending is needed over the next decade.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Natalie Mebane, U.S. policy director of the climate activist group about how her organization views Biden’s proposed American Jobs plan and what further steps are required to effectively address the threat of climate change.

NATALIE MEBANE: It is sort of a balance. It has a lot of great things in it that we love. For me, one of my favorite things is that it plans to replace all lead pipes across America. We all know about Flint, but there are so many places that have the exact same problem that we don’t know about. Lead pipes have been a problem across America for decades, and it’s not going to get fixed on its own. I also think that having the infrastructure to build electric vehicles so that we can charge them – (it’s) the same with having a gas car; if there were no gas stations, you couldn’t really drive. And so investing in that transition is exactly what we need. 

In terms of some of the things we’re still hearing may not be in line with what we want – and of course we have to confirm it when we see the exact language. But things like possibly supporting nuclear: that’s something I’m really looking to see if it includes that or not, as well as if it includes carbon capture and sequestration, and that’s something that’s really giving me pause because we have such a short amount of time to make the big investments necessary to completely get off dangerous and dirty energy, and investing billions more dollars in false solutions is not going to do it. So we don’t want to see a dime invested in CCS, which a lot of folks don’t know too much about it. But it’s really just a ploy from a lot of fossil fuel companies to keep their industry going, saying “We’ll promise to capture emissions, so let us keep polluting, let us still expand.” And the same thing with nuclear. 

MELINDA TUHUS: Natalie Mebane, I don’t know if there’s much specifics in it about mass transit. There is the thing about electrifying buses, but really promoting that – which is also really challenging in the era of Covid, because many people fled from the buses and a lot of people aren’t going back. That’s really a problem, but where should the emphasis be in terms of expanding both rail and transit?

NATALIE MEBANE: Right now, electric cars are seen as a luxury of folks who can afford them and that needs to change. I think if we actually replace our fleet of vehicles with electric vehicles, that becomes the standard, not the exception. And so in terms of making them more affordable, yes, not every electric car needs to be a Tesla, but the fact that we don’t even have real options in the market when people are choosing to buy a car is a problem. And when more electric vehicles are on the road, they will become cheaper just like any other vehicle. So I don’t think the price point is going to be a restriction much longer, especially if we have the infrastructure built, because people will actually be more likely to purchase an electric car, and then overall the production will increase and the cost will come down. 

You mentioned light rail and electric buses. I think it’s just part of overhauling our system of transportation overall. You know, 70 percent of oil that we use in the U.S. is used for transportation. In fact, for greenhouse gas emissions, transportation is the largest contributor, followed by power plants. So why are we ignoring the lowest hanging fruit in terms of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions in our country? If we transition completely off fossil fuels for our transportation – for buses, for cars, for all those things – and at the same time completely scrub the energy grid of dirty energy, we are essentially getting a two for one deal. We’re getting clean energy to power our transportation, and we’re obviously getting fossil fuels out of the energy sector. 

Our whole infrastructure is built, unfortunately, really dependent on the car, and I think this plan also changes that a bit by investing in light rail. So, I do believe that overall, you have to put the investment into the infrastructure, for people to be able to change their behavior. Right now it might not be feasible for you to take a train on a trip that you want to go, unless you’re [in] the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic corridor, but if we have the option of taking the train, I think a lot of people would choose that over a vehicle.

MELINDA TUHUS: Does 350 have a position on nukes and when to shut them down?

NATALIE MEBANE: We do have a position that we should absolutely, positively, not build any new nuclear plants anywhere in the country. In terms of allowing current plans to continue, I think you have to have a phase-out plan the same way you would for any other power plant. But that is why you start building renewable energy so you can phase out these dirty plants and not have an interruption in the power grid. On top of that, energy efficiency is one of the main ways we can prevent the need for new power plants. In fact, if we invest overall in energy efficiency, not only would it create jobs everywhere, but the best energy is the energy you don’t use to begin with. So part of updating our infrastructure and our grid is also focusing on energy efficiency, not just new power generation. If you had a bucket with holes in it, and you’re pouring water, you wouldn’t just say, Oh no the water’s running out! Better get some more water. You would say, The bucket’s messed up; let’s fix the bucket, and that’s the much more efficient way to go. So instead of dumping new energy into the system, first look at how you can save energy with energy efficiency. Which is not the same thing as conservation. Conservation is, I turn my lights off when I leave the room. Energy efficiency is I’m turning off my LED, versus my incandescent or my CFL when I leave the room. You’re still using light, but which light you use matters.

For more information, visit the Climate Action Group

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