Politics

Here are the biggest climate pieces of Democrats’ spending plan

At least nine billion-dollar weather and climate disasters have hit the U.S. in 2021. Severe drought, flooding, hurricanes and a winter storm have killed more than 300 people, and last month’s Hurricane Ida left more than $50 billion of damage in its wake. On Monday, President Joe Biden called these disasters a “blinking Code Red for our nation.”

Passage of a number of climate-related measures — which Democrats want to do through a $3.5 trillion budget package that would require only 50 votes in the Senate, known as reconciliation — could help dial that alarm back. 

“If this investment is not made then I think the irreparable damage that has been done — it gets to a point where we may not be able to turn back the clock,” said Daniel Blackman, executive committee chair of environmental advocacy group Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter.

One of the most urgent elements of the budget package is subsidizing a transition away from fossil fuels, said Blackman. He said the health of people of color and underserved communities, in the South especially, have been disproportionately affected by living in close proximity to high-risk hazardous facilities in what are known as “fenceline” communities. 

Research published earlier this year showed that people of color are disproportionately subject to deadly air pollutants. Extreme heat in the U.S., the leading climate-related killer, is more likely to affect Black and brown people than any other group. And communities of color are 40% more likely to rely on unsafe water.

Blackman said environmental justice provisions in the budget could be as significant for his community as reparations in that it would acknowledge injustices that generations have had to endure and help to ensure equity. 

Lowering emissions by relying less on fossil fuels is how Mr. Biden’s $3.5 trillion plan aims to meet climate goals and create jobs. A transition to clean energy would increase demand for the manufacturing of products like solar panels and wind turbines. Part of the proposed budget would incentivize green technology be made in the U.S. 

The plan also includes a $150 billion “clean electricity performance program,” which would pay utility companies to source their energy from renewable sources. That program is modeled after successful statewide clean energy standards.

A clean electricity performance program would be the “marquee component” of the reconciliation bill, said Jessica Goad, deputy director of the nonprofit Conservation Colorado. 

Goad pointed to the interconnectedness of climate change, health and the economy addressed by the full package. She said wildfires and the damage they do to air quality keeps Coloradans inside, devastating the state’s integral tourism industry. 

The budget bill also contains measures that would incentivize the buying of electric vehicles and the construction of their charging stations; offer consumer rebates to homeowners who weatherfit their homes; give tax credits to companies building sources of clean energy; charge oil and gas producers for methane leaks; help farmers reduce their carbon footprint; and invest in climate research.

John Paul Meija, national spokesperson at the youth-led Sunrise Movement, said establishing a Civilian Climate Corps is a crucial part of the legislation. If passed, members would fight climate change and work to make communities more climate resilient. Sunrise estimates a corps would provide roughly 20,000 jobs annually. Meija said the corps would capitalize on his generation’s passion for fighting the climate crisis.

Activists and organizers are concerned that the proposed $3.5 trillion plan will be pared down during negotiations between progressive and moderate Democrats like Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who has said she does not support that level of spending. 

Passing a fully-funded reconciliation package is a “matter of life and death,” said Meija.

“The delusion that these senators and congresspeople can represent and keep their constituents safe but not provide the proper funding to do so is abysmal and really makes them look incredibly out of touch,” he said. “$3.5 trillion is the floor.”

The transition to clean energy is a major hangup for West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who has said his state would be left behind if coal production is slashed.

Executive director of the West Virginia Land Trust Brent Bailey said Manchin’s reluctance matches West Virginians’ fear. 

“Systemic exclusion of rural populations from the benefits of federal programs has already left places like West Virginia and regions like Appalachia behind,” said Bailey, who has spoken with Manchin and his office about the need to fight climate change.

Brandon Dennison, CEO of Coalfield Development, a West Virginia-based nonprofit retraining unemployed workers in green jobs, agreed that Manchin is acting in good faith but the time for climate action is now.

“The writing has been on the wall and we just keep kicking the can down the road. It feels like the conservative thing to do,” he said, adding that West Virginia has been particularly ravaged by flooding.

“We’re having these very expensive crises,” he said. “So shouldn’t we set aside some funds to get out ahead of that?”

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