The Infrastructure Bill Is Divorced From the Reality of Climate Change

The Senate is indeed acting as an anchor, just as it was designed. It is holding us back from the changes we desperately need.
Wildfires behind the Golden Gate Bridge
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Moveable explores the future of transportation, infrastructure, energy, and cities.

On Monday, two separate yet intertwined events took place that served as yet another reminder how discombobulating it can feel to live in a world with a rapidly changing climate and political leadership acting as if there is little they can or will do about it.

One of those events was the release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that, among other things, concluded a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise is unavoidable. “Nobody is safe, and it's getting worse faster," said Inger Andersen, who serves as Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme in a press briefing. "We must treat climate change as an immediate threat, just as we must treat the connected crises of nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste, as immediate threats.”


The other event demonstrated that the U.S. political system will not do that very thing. In Washington, the Senate plodded along on its laborious path to passing an infrastructure bill through a torturous bipartisan compromise that is being referred to as a "down payment" on addressing the climate crisis yet may well in fact increase carbon pollution. It is also, through the complicated machinations of Washington politics, just a part of a companion effort to force through a supposedly larger, more aggressive climate policy through the budget reconciliation process. Given the razor-thin voting margins in the Senate, it is a delicate balancing act, and ultimately a bill that doesn't rise to meet clear, urgent warnings detailed in the IPCC report. 

The bill has a little bit more money for things that might help reduce emissions like public transportation and passenger rail at a slightly higher ratio than previous infrastructure bills relative to forms of transportation that produce emissions like roads, highways, bridges, and airplanes. But it still gives $350 billion in new spending authority to the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), compared to just $158 billion to the Federal Transit and Railroad Administrations. And the money to the FHA has no provision requiring states to fix aging infrastructure first rather than building new highways. One cannot expect things to get better if we don't change what we're doing. 


The upshot of this political maze is that the House likely currently has the votes for something approaching an aggressive climate policy, but the Senate does not. This is not surprising, as the entire premise of the Senate's existence is to prevent exactly this type of legislation from passing. 

The Senate, as James Madison wrote, is to be "an anchor against popular fluctuations." The writings of the Founding Fathers are littered with antidemocratic musings about just how much the aristocracy has to fear from the people—"The evils we experience flow from an excess of democracy," said Elbridge Gerry, a representative from Massachusetts and influential voice during the Constitutional Convention—and the necessity of a house within the legislative branch to ensure a check on their power. For more than half of this country's history under the current constitution—RIP Articles of Confederation—U.S. senators were not elected by the people, but by votes in state legislatures.

After living through four years in which the passions of the people resulted in a bloviating ignoramus assuming the highest office in the land, I am more tempted to see the wisdom in this approach than I was previously (although such an event would never have come to pass without one of the Founding Fathers' other ideas, the electoral college). Roger Sherman doesn't sound to modern ears entirely off base when he pronounced "The people should have as little to do as may be about the government...they lack information and are constantly liable to be misled."


Of course, people have more information now than they did in the 18th Century. We know why rivers flood, why forests light on fire, why summers are hotter on average than they used to be and why people get sick. Within the last 18 months we have discovered and succumbed to a new virus. We have also invented and widely distributed an effective, safe, and lasting vaccine to hundreds of millions of people. Every single concept in those last two sentences would have been a complete mystery to the men who created and sat in the early Senates. Men who, for all their worldly wisdom, knew less about how the world works than the average high schooler today.

Given the state of the world in the 18th Century, it should come as no surprise the institutions they created aren't fit to deal with the climate emergency, a deeply modern problem stressing and vexing all of our institutions, new and old. The entire point of the Senate is to slow change, to calm passions, to tell the House of Representatives to chill out while everything blows over. The Senate is incrementalism, margins, tweaks to the system, never wholesale change.

What the creators of this system never imagined was a world in which by doing nothing we would be guaranteeing wholesale change. They couldn't fathom a scenario in which calming passions, chilling out, and maintaining the status quo would cause the oceans to rise into our cities, the forests to engulf in flames and burn down our towns, for great clouds of smoke to drift across the continent and clog our lungs and turn the sun blood red. They could fathom these events only as terrible acts of God, not the work of men like them. 

And so we have an infrastructure bill that accomplishes its goal and serves as "an anchor against popular fluctuations." 

The Senate is indeed acting as an anchor, just as it was designed. It is holding us back, dragging us down, tying us to a past our future requires us to free ourselves from, and pulling us into an abyss its members will not live long enough to experience.