Biden is still not taking climate change seriously

His infrastructure plan is ambitious by U.S. standards. That doesn't mean it's enough.

Biden infrastructure bill.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images)

President Biden has released the details of his infrastructure plan. It's a big bill — priced at roughly $2.8 trillion over a decade, with tons of money for repairs, maintenance, trains, green investment, and more (as well as a lot of other stuff). It would be paid for with hikes in income and corporate tax rates.

A main objective of the plan is supposed to be tackling climate change. Judging by the standards of American politics, it is quite aggressive. But judged by the standards of Biden's campaign platform, and more importantly, by the standards of what is needed to combat climate change, the proposal falls far short of the mark. America will need bolder action than this to do its part in the global fight to preserve a livable climate.

First, the good. Biden would invest $85 billion in public transit agencies, $80 billion in Amtrak, and $174 billion in electric vehicles. That's a doubling of federal funding for transit and a quadrupling for intercity rail. He would invest $35 billion in green research directly, and another $155 billion in general research, including advanced energy technology. Most importantly, there are $400 billion in clean energy tax credits for things like wind farms, rooftop solar, home insulation upgrades, and so forth, which will have a climate impact in the trillions. (These credits were mysteriously not included in the administration's headline price tag.) All that is a great stuff.

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But in terms of climate, this proposal is a substantial downgrade from Biden's campaign pledge — the overall size is about the same, but the priorities are different. The $180 billion in research is welcome, but he previously promised $400 billion focused entirely on climate. There is also $400 billion in elder care, which is welcome of course but has little to do with climate or even infrastructure. The $115 billion for road maintenance, and money to replace every lead water pipe in the country, is similarly vital but largely unrelated to climate. The electric vehicle spending will help, but it lamentably ignores the far greater promise of electric bicycles (though the focus on electric buses and Post Office vehicles is good).

At bottom, it isn't really a climate bill — it's a grab bag of some infrastructure stuff, some climate stuff, and some elder care stuff. Despite the large headline price, it isn't that big either — just one percent of GDP.

Neither does Biden address the biggest missing element of his campaign's climate plan — international cooperation. Climate change is a global problem, and the U.S. is not even close to the biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the world now. China emits fully twice as much as the U.S., and India emits nearly as much as the entire European Union. The key tasks for global climate policy will be to help or coax China into slashing its emissions, and to prevent the rest of the developing world from following China's coal-powered model.

It's a striking absence given that Biden also proposes to revolutionize international corporate taxation. He would institute a 21 percent minimum tax on American corporate taxes, and close many loopholes that allow U.S. companies to book their profits in low-tax foreign countries. More importantly, he proposes to set up a global minimum corporate tax through international agreements. As economist Gabriel Zucman points out, if Biden could get this done (and the U.S. has many ways to pressure other nations to agree, especially given that it would be in their interest anyway), it would end the scourge of beggar-thy-neighbor tax havens which have driven a race to the bottom in corporate tax rates. That's an excellent idea — but it doesn't have anything directly to do with climate.

Now, America simply making an honest effort to cut its own emissions would likely help global climate politics a lot, by making it clear that the U.S. won't be a huge roadblock to international cooperation. But as Jacob Fawcett argues in a paper for the People's Policy Project, it would also be very wise to seed a huge international investment fund to help poorer countries leap over carbon-fueled energy technologies. It's a matter of both climate justice and national security, given how badly unchecked warming will harm America. By contrast, Biden's whole package is focused almost entirely within the U.S. — trying to encourage domestic investment and help Americans above all.

This surely isn't the end of Biden's climate policy. There are a lot of other things he could do with regulations, trade deals, or just more legislation. But it will be hard enough to get just this one package through the Senate; it's entirely possible that this will be his only serious climate bill. As the legislation works through Congress, climate hawks should work to make it more ambitious and aggressive. If they don't, clockwork climate disasters will continue to wreak ever-greater havoc across the country and the world.

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