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Democrats see $4 trillion infrastructure bill as a way to accomplish Green New Deal goals

By Jess Bidgood Globe Staff – Updated March 28, 2021.

WASHINGTON — In the viral ad that helped put his underdog campaign on a glide path to victory last summer, Senator Ed Markey cast himself as the Green New Dealmaker, an old hand in vintage sneakers who was agitating for sweeping progress on climate change.

“We’ve got to make sure President Biden signs the Green New Deal,” Markey said. “We can’t wait.”

Six months later, that isn’t going to happen — not exactly. But Markey and other progressives still insist they are on the cusp of the most consequential environmental legislation in a generation.

The Biden administration has indicated that it plans to use its infrastructure proposal, a package to be unveiled on Wednesday that reportedly could cost as much as $4 trillion, to supercharge the nation’s clean energy transition. The move could set the stage for a drop in emissions and represents a broader change in how Democrats tackle the issue of climate.

“It’s a way of accomplishing many of the goals of the Green New Deal,” Markey told the Globe, saying he will urge his colleagues “to go big and bold to match the urgency of the moment.”

The package is not expected to be a word-for-word embrace of the sweeping climate resolution Markey co-authored with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but it inexorably links climate with the nation’s infrastructure and economy. That is a significant departure from the standalone cap-and-trade bill he coauthored in 2009, the last time Democrats held the White House and both chambers of Congress, which couldn’t even get a vote in the Senate.

But in some ways, that’s precisely the point.

“The lesson I learned was that climate needs to inform and be included in every legislative package, not separate and put into a silo,” Markey said.

The politics of climate change are rapidly shifting, spurred by rising temperatures, a steady drumbeat of disaster, and lessons learned on both sides of the political aisle. On Capitol Hill, there are already signs that weaving climate into other legislation — something Biden campaigned on that reflects activists’ calls for an integrated approach to climate — could propel the kind of major climate efforts that sputtered during the Obama administration and went dark for much of the Trump administration, which denied the existence of climate change.

“This is a huge moment of opportunity for society to step in the direction in a big way of a clean energy future,” said Daniel Esty, a professor at Yale’s schools of law and the environment.

That’s not to say it will be easy. Republicans are signaling little interest in what they see as an infrastructure package with mission creep. If Democrats have to rely on the budget reconciliation process, moderate Democrats from fossil-fuel producing states, like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, will have significant say over the package.

“I don’t know anyone who wants to breathe dirty air or drink bad water,” Manchin said this past week, although he balked when asked about Markey’s assertion that an infrastructure package could achieve the goals of the Green New Deal. “I really haven’t heard that at all,” he said.

They see the White House’s infrastructure package as an opportunity to pass sweeping climate change legislation this year.

“The Biden administration will seek big climate elements in the infrastructure bill, to the point where it might even be called a climate infrastructure bill,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island who has discussed the measure with Biden’s advisers.

“I think you’re looking at big investments in upgrading the electric grid and transitioning to renewable energy sources, I think you’re looking at a deep acceleration of the transition to electric vehicles,” Whitehouse said. He also expects provisions to give buildings environmental upgrades, fund research and development, and provide financial support for industrial plants and other businesses to become more green.

Veterans of the 2009 climate fight say the approach is a workaround given the unpopularity in Congress of passing standalone climate regulations, which persists today.

“Despite the real problems we’re facing when it comes to climate change, the votes still aren’t there, especially in the Senate,” said Jim Manley, who was an aide to Senate majority leader Harry Reid at the time. “Do you try to do what you can, or do you try to take a broad, sweeping bill to the floor, only to see it flame out?”

Experts say the country still needs to take aggressive action to cut emissions — something that carbon-pricing, which does not appear likely to be part of the package, would do. But Tim Profeta, the director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke, suggested a major investment in clean energy could help create political will for that kind of step.

“The more our economy turns to and invests in the energy transition… the more open we will be to policies that will help it happen effectively,” he said.

The Biden administration has not released the details of its plan. A White House spokesperson declined to comment on the specifics, but said climate is a top priority and “using infrastructure as a way to address the climate crisis is of course a piece of the puzzle.”

Biden hinted at the approach Thursday, explaining why he sees infrastructure as fundamentally tied to climate.

“The roads that used to be above the water level — didn’t have to worry about what the draining ditch was,” he said. “Now, you gotta build them three feet higher. Because it’s not going to go back to what it was.”

Climate activists acknowledge the push reflects a significant shift in how Democrats advocate around the issue. They have called for new investment and standards, while the carbon tax is actually gaining popularity among some Republicans and industry groups.

That is not to say everyone on the left loves what they know so far about Biden’s plan.

“Quite frankly, we just did not think that was enough,” said Ellen Sciales, the press secretary for the Sunrise Movement, a group of young climate activists who helped propel Markey’s primary victory over Representative Joe Kennedy III last year. “We are looking for a $1 trillion investment per year over the next decade.”

And some Democrats on Capitol Hill want more details about the administration’s plan to split the proposal into separate parts, with infrastructure and climate coming first, and then a plan addressing child care and health care issues.

“We need all the parts done,” said Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren last week. Along with Markey, Ocasio-Cortez, and Representative Andy Levin of Michigan, Warren has proposed a $500 billion measure she hopes will be plugged into the infrastructure package that would end carbon emissions in transportation.

“We can’t have the train leave the station and critical parts of this get left on the platform,” Warren said.

Some Senate Republicans are making their opposition to the approach very clear.

“Traditional infrastructure never included climate laws,” said Senator Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri. “It’s not easy to get the bill that they’re talking about, or anything close to it, in a bipartisan way.”

Markey, who now chairs the Senate’s Clean Energy and Climate Change subcommittee, has additional plans to deal with climate change, including an environmental justice mapping effort he has cosponsored with Representative Cori Bush of Missouri, and a civilian climate corps program. If Republicans block Democratic action on climate, he said, that should give his party another reason to roll back the filibuster.

“Climate action, when it’s done right, will lift up public health and create good-paying union jobs across the country,” he said. “And I can feel it coming together in the Democratic Party.”

Liz Goodwin of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Jess Bidgood can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.