By Michael Shellenberger
Yesterday, President Joe Biden appeared to have scored an important climate policy victory in announcing a deal with Republicans to spend hundreds of billions in new infrastructure, including $73 billion for new solar and wind farms and $15 billion for electric vehicle infrastructure and electric buses.
But the total for climate over five years ends up being just $88 billion, which is less than the “clean tech” portion of the 2009 Obama-Biden stimulus, and a far cry from the trillions that progressive Democrats and climate advocates had demanded as part of a Green New Deal. The total for electric cars is less than one-tenth of the $177 billion the administration had requested. And there is no Clean Electricity Standard.
Defenders of the deal say there will be another chance to spend more money on climate change in the budget reconciliation process later this year. White House aides call this a “two-step dance.” As such, Biden told reporters at a second press conference, after the first press conference announcing the deal with Republican, that he would not sign the infrastructure legislation unless it were connected with a separate bill to pay for other infrastructure items.
But Biden’s maneuverings angered Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, who went on Fox News to denounce the two-step dance, and it is not clear if Democrats have enough support to pass additional infrastructure legislation, with or without Republican support. Already one Republican senator has said he won’t support the bipartisan infrastructure deal without assurances that nothing additional is done in reconciliation. And nobody thinks we will see a return of the Clean Electricity Standard, or much more money for electric cars.
“The easiest way to understand today’s infrastructure carousel,” noted New York Times economics correspondent Jim Tankersly, “is that President Biden is trying to have it both ways — progressive and bipartisan — at the risk of getting neither if it all falls apart.”
In truth, it looks like the Biden administration hadn’t completely thought through its strategy. “There appears to be some … deliberate uncertainty … about the sequencing for the two bills Biden wants,” writes Tankersly. “He says they need to move in tandem. He also says that he wants them both to move as quickly as possible to his desk. So what happens if the bipartisan deal arrives first?”
Whatever happens, it’s clear that the $88 billion in the infrastructure bill is the high point, not low point, of the Biden Administration’s efforts on climate change. After Obama won $90 billion in clean tech stimulus in 2009, Democrats still had the expectation they would pass sweeping, economy-wide “cap and trade” legislation. There is no such expectation today.
All of that despite four years of massive climate change protests in the U.S. and around the world, demanding radical change. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will continue to give apocalyptic speeches, cut ribbons, and attack Republicans as climate deniers. They might get some more money in the budget reconciliation. But there is no global treaty to negotiate, no clean energy breakthrough anticipated, and no sweeping proposal to reorganize the electricity or energy system.
Thus, the real question is not what’s next for climate change over the next three years but rather what’s next over the next thirty?
Progressive Democrats are angry at how tiny Biden’s climate mitigation investments are, but it’s their own fault. Biden attempted to dial-up support for nuclear energy in the legislation but Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and environmental justice experts within the Biden White House successfully nixed even a modest lifeline for existing nuclear plants on the brink of closing down due to heavy federal and state subsidies for renewables.
The underlying reason for the failure of Biden’s ambitious climate plans is that progressives remain dogmatically pro-renewables and anti-nuclear. After I and a handful of others spent much of 2019 criticizing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her anti-nuclear Green New Deal, she said in May of that year that she would “keep the door open” on nuclear power. But in October she advocated the closure of New York’s Indian Point nuclear plant. When the plant closed earlier this year, natural gas use and carbon emissions increased, as my colleagues and I had long predicted.
Had Biden advocated the increase of nuclear power from today’s 19 percent to 50 percent of America’s electricity by 2050, he would have won Republican support, and America would be on a path to significantly reduced emissions. The climate infrastructure compromise legislation Biden announced yesterday does so little that it will be impossible to measure any impact on the energy mix, much less overall emissions. And U.S. emissions will rise this year, thanks to the closure of Indian Point, and a booming post-COVID economy.
That’s in stark contrast to the fracking revolution, which is the source of America’s energy independence, and the main reason our pollution declined more over the last 20 years than any nation’s emissions have ever declined in recorded history. US emissions declined 22% since 2005, which is five percentage points more than President Obama had promised to under his Clean Power Plan proposal.
The public interest case for nuclear power is obvious. Building nuclear power plants that can last 80 or 100 years is much more similar to building roads and bridges than it is to importing from China solar panels that last just 10 or 20. And taking responsibility for the peaceful use of our most dangerous technology, the only one that truly poses an apocalyptic threat to human civilization, rather than let China and Russia control it, is obviously in America’s national security interests.
From an environmental point of view, safely managing and eventually re-using used nuclear fuel rods at the site of production is much closer to the “circular economy” vision of permanent recycling than to the reality of solar waste disposal, which turns out to involve either dumping flimsy used solar panels on poor Africansor paying four times more for solar electricity than progressives had claimed.
Progressive support for nuclear has grown quickly. Two progressive and socialist science writers, Will Boisvertand Leigh Phillips, spoke out forcefully and insightfully in support of nuclear, in 2013 and 2016. This year, two socialists, Emmet Penney and Bhaskar Sunkara, made the economic and climate case for nuclear power.
Unfortunately, most mainstream news reporters remain hostile to nuclear energy and they reach many more people. They repeat the same false claims that there is something so terribly complicated about nuclear plants that we can’t build them, even as they are built all over the world.
But all infrastructure projects are over-budget, and everybody in construction knows this. Even people who have renovated a kitchen know this. The UK-France tunnel under the English Channel was $3.6 billion over budget. The International Space Station program is tens of billions of dollars over budget. And the Sochi Winter Olympics were $39 billion over budget.
While I mentioned the latter stat in Britain, while making the case for public investment in nuclear energy, one reporter quipped, “But that’s more a feature than a bug in Russia.” There’s truth in that, and it’s a funny joke. But it’s also the case that Russia builds nuclear plants closer to their projected budget than other nations, and certainly much closer to budget than their Olympics, because Russia offers a standardized design, and the same people build its nuclear plants over and over again.
In the end, the collapse of Biden’s big climate plans discredits the progressive agenda on climate, as promoted by Greta Thunberg, AOC, and the progressive caucus. The 100% renewable, anti-nuclear agenda reveals that the loudest climate activists care more about renewables as a path to harmony with nature through degrowth than about reducing emissions and toxic waste.