Rebecca Leber: Breaking Down Biden’s Climate Plan

The infrastructure bill currently being negotiated in Congress includes some important climate-related allocations. Environmentalists, of course, feel it doesn’t go far enough, while Republicans have already voiced opposition to the climate protections embedded in the bill. This week on Sea Change Radio, we talk to Rebecca Leber, an environmental reporter at Vox who has been covering the story. We take a deep dive into what the bill aims to do, look at the politics surrounding it, and discuss what it could mean not only for the US but for the international environmental community. And as the dog days of summer begin to wind down, we also examine some of the problems with our reliance on air conditioning.

Narrator 0:02  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Rebecca Leber 0:20  I would say this is democrats last best shot at doing something serious on climate change, at least in the next few years and Biden term.

Narrator  0:34  The infrastructure bill currently being negotiated in Congress include some important climate related allocations. Environmentalists, of course, feel it doesn’t go far enough. While Republicans have already voiced opposition to the climate protections embedded in the bill. This week on Sea Change Radio, we talked to Rebecca Leber, an environmental reporter at Vox, who has been covering the story, we take a deep dive into what the bill aims to do. Look at the politics surrounding it, and discuss what it could mean not only for the US, but for the international environmental community. And as the dog days of summer begin to wind down, we also examine some of the problems with our reliance on air conditioning.

Alex Wise 1:42  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Rebecca Leber. Rebecca is a senior reporter at Vox. Rebecca, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

Rebecca Leber Hi, Alex, great to be on.

Alex Wise The last time we spoke you were covering environmental issues at Mother Jones and you’ve moved your talents to You’re a keen observer of the political process when it comes to the environment. And Congress is on the verge of passing this reconciliation bill with climate policy being a major part of it. And I thought you could be a great resource for our listeners to kind of break it down for us what are the biggest hurdles that still need to be overcome for this to pass in a political sense?

Rebecca Leber 2:30  Yeah, there’s a lot of moving pieces going on this summer. So as your listeners are probably aware, there are parallel tracks that Democrats are pursuing. One is the bipartisan infrastructure bill that has already passed the Senate, which was a key hurdle. But there’s also a reconciliation bill that is a budget of 3.5 trillion. That includes a lot of Biden’s most ambitious proposals to curb climate change his social priorities and other infrastructure priorities that were cut in the negotiations for the bipartisan bill. So the key to the reconciliation, passage will be rallying every single Democrat, especially in the Senate, to vote yes, on this bill. That’s a huge hurdle here, because there is has been a split between the so called moderate democrats and the more liberal part of the party clashing over where to fall in line on these top line items. So just this week, the house cleared one more hurdle, where they passed a resolution agreeing on some very basic principles for the reconciliation bill. And the next step is seeing in a few weeks time, the committee chairs starting to submit language and the actual specifics, fleshing out what will be in this package.

Alex Wise 4:03  So electricity is going to be at the forefront of any package that does pass. Have the democrats been able to properly message the fact that these two things clean electricity and climate change are not distinct from each other?

Rebecca Leber 4:20  Yeah, so Democrats have this proposal. That’s really the center of President Biden’s climate ambitions. And it’s this clean electricity standard, or it also has a more boring sounding name that is it clean electricity payment program. So this is really critical to Biden achieving those top line climate pollution goals that he laid out to the world. And I do think Democrats have started to do a better job messaging around this. I think a lot of people in the advocacy community have rallied around this proposal as key and a must pass provision. But just this week, Senator Schumer, and the majority leader sent out a letter to his colleagues outlining climate priorities in the reconciliation negotiations. And he names this clean electricity standard along with clean energy tax credits as key to the overall climate goals. And he even released this chart showing a breakdown of how critical each policy is to overall climate cuts. And those clean electricity provisions make up the lion’s share of where the US can cut pollution by 2030. So I do think you’re starting to see that connection made. But democrats also aren’t just saying this is this is only a climate proposal. They’re connecting this to jobs as well, that cleaning up the electricity sector also creates jobs. So they’re making a number of arguments hear that this kind of proposal is good for the economy, that this is good for lowering air pollution, and it’s good for the climate.

Alex Wise 6:03  And you mentioned in your piece, price on methane pollution is going to be attached to the plan. Is this part and parcel with a price on carbon dioxide or is it unbundled?

Rebecca Leber 6:17  Well, the concept is somewhat similar. I believe the methane proposal, this is coming from Senator Whitehouse, who has proposed a fee on methane. The way I would say methane is a little different from carbon dioxide and putting a price on carbon is methane, itself is natural gas, meaning this is a product when oil and gas producers are leaking into the atmosphere, they’re actually leaking a product that can be used. So incentivizing companies to basically recapture this, instead of letting it vent and warm the atmosphere at the rate it has. That’s a way that I think methane is kind of unique here that we do have a lot of leaks in the system that we need to plug up. When it comes to carbon dioxide, we obviously need a transition off of fossil fuels in general. So that includes gas and other fossil fuel sources. But when it comes to carbon dioxide, the idea of pricing it is you include the cost that it’s posing to people’s health and the planet. And that way, renewables and alternative technologies have a better chance of competing,

Alex Wise 7:31 And the electric vehicle investment portion of this puzzle, why don’t you kind of break that down for us, if you will, Rebecca.

Rebecca Leber 7:39  Yeah, so the way to think about us climate emissions is breaking it down by sector transportation is our biggest source for climate pollution followed by the electricity sector. So transportation is a tricky area for us to address. The reason it’s now the number one source is because our electricity sector is starting to get cleaner, and hopefully with some kind of clean electricity standard, it gets even cleaner. Meanwhile, we have lots and lots of cars on the road that still rely on oil. And the challenge of basically, changing cultural behavior, changing individual buying patterns and shifting an entire economic powerhouse to cleaner sources is immense. And Biden laid out in the campaign this proposal for for electric vehicle charging stations and infrastructure that would actually support more EVis on the road. The infrastructure package included some money for Evie stations, but it was not the level that Biden was looking for. So democrats are probably going to look to supplement that in the reconciliation package. So you actually target more of the sector. And a few other parts of the infrastructure package that I’d point to on transportation emissions. It includes some interesting proposals, like cleaning up school buses, and Postal Service trucks and other kind of parts of the economy and parts of our transportation system that are big polluters, but we might not really think about it every day. So this is a challenge. Biden in the campaign promised or laid out a pathway for having all new car sales be entirely electric vehicles and carbon free cars by 2035. And that is definitely an ambitious goal but he’s doing a few things through EPA as well as this infrastructure package to lay out that pathway.

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Alex Wise 10:42  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Vox reporter Rebecca Leber. This week’s show is dedicated to the memory of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. So Rebecca, breaking down the infrastructure plan a little bit more, are there any pieces of the plan that could be taken out and passed in Congress on an à la carte basis?

Rebecca Leber 11:08  Well, the strategy behind reconciliation and grouping all this together is that you can sidestep the filibuster. So you no longer have that 60 vote threshold and requirement that you have a significant part of the Republican Party coming along on these proposals. Now, there are some pieces here that do have bipartisan support. But I think often when you attach climate change to the messaging, this is a has become a very polarizing topic in the country where the Republican Party while many states that are conservative, and red states do have a lot of clean energy kind of attaching that climate frame can be more controversial. So I think like separating out things into specific bills that has in the past doomed it to failure. But by grouping all this together, and using this reconciliation strategy, which, remember, is not a new strategy, both parties have used this for years to pass budgets, Democrats are looking to do this on a more ambitious level, of course. So this is kind of the the narrow political path that Democrats actually have here. And remember, the reason we’re seeing some of these proposals in a reconciliation package is because in infrastructure negotiations, there was this White House effort to reach a bipartisan deal that actually cleared that filibuster threshold. But by negotiating, they ended up stripping out quite a bit of the climate proposals where we saw a lot of those cuts made was in climate and, and the resulting law does not or I’m sorry, it’s not a law yet. But the likely law is not matching the needs, we have to cut emissions and to invest at the level we need to hit these climate targets. I would say this is democrats last best shot at doing something serious on climate change, at least in the next few years and Biden term.

Alex Wise 13:22  So this is really the time that they have to focus on climate. What’s your read on the likelihood of it being passed and passed in time to go to Glasgow, maybe kind of connect the dots for listeners there, and that our next major international climate change conference, which is being held in in Scotland this fall?

Rebecca Leber 13:39  Right, so we have the next cop, and as you said, This fall, there’s been some delays and problems, obviously, because of the global pandemic, but the timing of this package. And if democrats really have something signed and delivered, by the time of this call, this cop is really important here. Because remember, from an international perspective, the world has seen the US make these promises before that the country is delivering serious results when it comes to climate change, only to see a new president come in and reverse that. Of course, we saw this with Trump after President Obama. So to actually prove to the world that the US really is serious here. The US needs a law passed, executive action is not enough here. So that’s where this spending from Congress becomes so important, because once you have the actual spending approved, that’s when you see real results and it also from a political lens becomes harder for Congress to eliminate programs that you’re actually seeing real results in jobs delivered from so the world not just from a convincing that that the US is on the side of climate action. It’s also important because the more The US pushes in its ambitions, the more pressure other countries can feel, in stepping up their own ambitions, instead of a race to the bottom of what is the least amount we can do on climate change, it becomes a race to do better. We saw this in the Obama administration with the Paris agreement where we saw bilateral deals between the US and China. And the US and India, were countries promised to do better. All of that came to a standstill during the Trump years, while some countries backtracked on their proposals. And while that’s not all up to the US, it’s certainly a factor whether you have this economic powerhouse, playing a big part in these negotiations.

Alex Wise 15:47  So there’s been a lot of headlines with this climate change plan about the half million electric vehicle charging stations that are built into the proposal. And along with that proposal, there’s been some analysis that this is not necessarily going to be an issue that helps the most vulnerable communities in the short term, at least, there is an issue of charging equity. How do you view the the proposal of putting 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations in when there aren’t that many lower income people who own electric vehicles yet?

Rebecca Leber 16:31  Yeah, this is a it’s a tough issue. And I think part of this is obviously also lowering the cost of electric vehicles is another key element here. So you’re not just adding charging stations. But I’m always skeptical of kind of answering a problem like we have with transportation pollution by adding more infrastructure for roads and highways, which are incredibly disruptive to low income communities and communities of color.

Alex Wise 17:00  And we’ve seen that adding more lanes to roads, for example, does not really lessen the flow of traffic necessarily just sometimes invites more cars.

Rebecca Leber 17:13  Yeah, one of my pandemic projects was to read Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, and he makes it very clear that it’s not a solution to traffic, there is a cost to adding road infrastructure. Concrete itself is very climate intensive. And by adding more lanes to roads, which there is funding in the infrastructure bill for more highway spending, you are probably just going to encourage more driving. So there is the question of whether adding more EV charging stations, which is necessary for supporting EV technology. At the same time, we want to be careful that we’re not just prodding more people with access into driving when we should look at the full picture like public transit and other options and making our communities more walkable. I do think it’s a complicated problem. And there are some convincing arguments that if you looked at the infrastructure bill without the reconciliation proposals attached, the bill could just increase climate emissions because it’s not doing enough to shift our economy to this cleaner future.

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Alex Wise 19:35  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Rebecca Leber. She’s a senior reporter at Vox. So Rebecca, we’re talking about the infrastructure plan, one of the pieces of infrastructure and trying to mitigate a changing climate is redesigning cities for these warmer climes, you actually have a piece Last month, or a couple months ago, in titled How to redesign cities to withstand heat waves. Let’s combine the conversation of cities of tomorrow with how policymakers should be viewing things as they sit down to dig into the infrastructure plan. you interviewed Vivek Shandas about this piece? Why don’t you summarize it, if you will?

Rebecca Leber 20:25  Yeah. So I interviewed for that this scientist who lives in Oregon, Portland, during one of the summers terrible heat waves, where it was, it was regularly over 100 degrees, he went out and actually drove around his neighborhood, using infrared camera attachment just for his iPhone to measure temperatures, and how much they vary across the city. So we kind of think when we look at a forecast that we just get one temperature, but if you’ve ever stood near on a parking lot, or just kind of a bare concrete area on a hot day, you know that that’s radiating a lot more heat, it’s a lot hotter than standing in a cooler park with lots of trees, and maybe even some water. So those temperatures can vary. He found some readings that varied up to 30 or 40 degrees. And the research supports this that vulnerable people homeless people, that the temperatures are dangerously high. So I think when we talk about infrastructure and connecting it to the these federal proposals, we kind of miss the idea of how we build cities, and ironically in an infrastructure debate, and we miss kind of how we can have smarter buildings themselves, like green roofs and white roofs that reflect instead of absorb that heat from the sun. So there’s a lot of ways that that building smarter connects to this conversation about infrastructure. And unfortunately, I think that’s been a bit missed. And and you don’t see that as a big emphasis either in the infrastructure negotiations.

Alex Wise 22:07  And this heat that we have this summer in so many areas is not going to be going away anytime soon, we’re going to see this pattern worsen during our lifetimes. We are, we were taught that air conditioning was not necessarily such a drain on the environment, because the environmental community came together in the mid 80s, signed the Montreal Protocol got rid of these ozone depleting CFCs. And so we can just all move to Phoenix and run our air conditioning all the time. But it’s not so simple, isn’t it?

Rebecca Leber 22:51  Yeah. So you’re talking about the Montreal Protocol that has been hailed as this environmental success, we averted catastrophe by phasing out these chemicals. And it turns out, the replacement we used are also warming the planet.

Alex Wise 23:09  But not necessarily putting a hole in the ozone but still dangerous greenhouse gases.

Rebecca Leber 23:16  Yeah, rather than depleting the ozone, we have heat trapping, gases hfcs that have 1000s, the warming potential as carbon dioxide, the last in the atmosphere for, I believe, a bit a bit shorter period. So this year, the US became a late signer on to a new version of this global agreement to phase out hfcs and air conditioning. But one thing that I learned in doing that story and interviewing the author of a book after cooling by Eric Dean Wilson, one thing I learned from our conversation was actually that CFCs even though they’ve been phased out, officially at the global scale, and are illegal to produce in the US, there is still this this underground market for it because the use of CFCs are not illegal. So a good portion of his book is profiling this person who works in finding and trying to destroy the ozone depleting chemicals that are still in use today. And it’s it’s just a fascinating kind of complication of this, this very simplified tale we we hear about how we save the world and then realizing that the actual mechanics of doing it and seeing permanent change is really difficult. And I think that applies a lot to the climate crisis that the actual solutions we’re talking about in the cultural change are challenging and something like finding better cooling systems. So we’re not using refrigerants that are making climate change worse. That’s big challenge. And of course it will, it will make a big difference. And if we’re going right past that 1.5 and two degree target for global warming, these are really powerful chemicals. And I think it’s worth at least thinking about, especially if you’re sitting in the comfort of AC right now,

Alex Wise 25:21 I forgot to mention the title to our listeners, it’s on Vox, and it’s entitled, it’s time to rethink air conditioning. So Rebecca, from your research on this piece, did you find that there are some promising technological breakthroughs down the road that could allow us to have our proverbial cake and eat it too when it comes to keeping our houses cooler?

Rebecca Leber 25:47  Well, there’s definitely some answers or alternatives we can be doing. So the author I spoke to Eric, Dean Wilson, was actually skeptical that there’s a technological fix. His argument was that there is there is a more cultural problem in how we view consumption in America, and also how we view disasters like heat waves as individual problems of whether you have access to AC or not. So he makes an argument that we actually need to think even more radically than technological answers, that we need to invest more in public cooling spaces, we maybe need to question whether office buildings with no one in them need to run AC at frigid temperatures. So I think there’s something to that argument of how we think about cooling. But there are things we can be doing. One, obviously, is to think about how we can cool down cities and counteract the urban heat island effect without just adding more ACS to the problem. So I mentioned a few of those answers like having more greenery less concrete, and bodies of water can cool down in area as well. But when it comes to technological answers, I know the think tank Rmi they actually made an argument that heat pumps, which typically they’re used for heating a home but that they could also be used to effectively keep a warmer I’m sorry, a cooler space as well because they take out that hot air in a home. A lot of this as well as cooling down a building requires construction and or requires retrofitting requires better energy efficiency. And these are bigger investments that we it’s not clear we quite have the appetite to make those those bigger changes. This is an area that has not gotten a ton of attention in infrastructure talks. So I’m not sure we are seeing that money coming behind this actually rethink how we build cities and home so they’re not just tethered to the AC.

Alex Wise 27:57

Rebecca Leber. Thanks so much for being my guest on seachange radio.

Rebecca Leber Thank you

Narrator  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise, additional music by the Rolling Stones. Check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives they are to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.