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Western States Face Record Heat & Historic Drought, But GOP Rejects Green Infrastructure Funding

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

President Joe Biden is planning to meet with lawmakers in a push to reach a bipartisan agreement on a new infrastructure plan. The group of 10 Republican and Democratic senators recently proposed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, but many Democrats have criticized the deal for not doing enough to address the climate crisis, among other issues. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are considering a $6 trillion package that could be passed through the reconciliation process if all 50 Democrats agree to vote for it.

The debate over infrastructure and combating the climate emergency comes as western states are facing daily reminders of the crisis, including drought, water shortages and extreme heat. Many cities have already broken all-time heat records even though it’s still June. Last week, Phoenix recorded five days in a row of temperatures over 115 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time ever. Santa Fe, New Mexico, tied its all-time high of 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Forecasters are predicting it could hit 110 degrees next week in Portland, Oregon. About 26% of the West is experiencing exceptional drought. Water levels at Lake Mead have dropped to their lowest levels ever recorded.

We’re joined right now by Leah Stokes. She’s an assistant professor of political science at University of California, Santa Barbara, researcher on climate and energy policy. She’s the author of Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Professor Stokes. So, talk about the desperate situation, the drought in the West, and how that links, very practically, to this debate over infrastructure spending.

LEAH STOKES: Well, I think you talked about it at the top of the segment here. You know, the reality is, it’s not just the West that’s in a debate. It’s really about half of the entire country that is facing really a historic drought. Scientists are saying that in some parts of the West they’re seeing a drought that’s worse than we’ve seen in, you know, something like four centuries.

So, the fact is that the climate crisis is here now. The drought, the heat waves that you talked about, setting record temperatures all across the western United States, and really even reaching into parts of the Midwest, these are the signatures of climate change. And the fact is that the climate crisis is on our doorstep.

And the question is: What are we going to do about it? Are we going to continue to talk about having infrastructure day or infrastructure week for another four years, or are we actually going to see Congress act and pass a bold climate package this summer?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Professor, you’ve said that the Biden administration and the Senate and House Democrats are committed to true climate action. But how do you see this playing out, given the clear Republican resistance? What do you think is doable? And of the stuff that’s not doable, what kind of public pressure needs to come on Washington to get it done?

LEAH STOKES: Well, I think you’re right that we need to keep the public pressure up. I noticed at the top of the hour you talked about Sunrise’s marches, which have been happening in both California and across the Gulf Coast. You know, there have been lots of actions, whether that’s against Line 3 or for these kinds of infrastructure negotiations, that have been trying to raise awareness of lawmakers of just how urgent the climate crisis is. And we really need to keep that up.

And the good news is that just a week or two ago, a group of senators — we have over 12 senators at this point now — have said, in the line of Senator Markey, “No climate, no deal,” meaning that if there is not climate change in the package that moves forward this summer, they’re not going to move a package forward this summer. And I think that’s really shaken free the negotiations in Congress, because what we’re now seeing is that Majority Leader Schumer is saying, “OK, we can have a two-track process. We can continue along with this bipartisan idea that’s been going on for several months now, and we can finally start the budget reconciliation process for the broader infrastructure package that Senator Sanders is helping to lead.” So I think that we’re starting to see this two-track process develop. But the fundamental thing that’s part of this process is “No climate, no deal.” We have to have a bold climate package, that’s happening through the budget reconciliation process, pass this summer.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the president has already sharply reduced his initial proposal on infrastructure. What’s in the bipartisan policy package now, and what’s been excluded so far?

LEAH STOKES: Well, we don’t actually know a lot of what is in the bipartisan policy package. There was a two-pager that came out a couple days ago, and it said that there would be about $600 billion in new spending, so things like, overwhelmingly, roads and bridges and sort of that kind of infrastructure. There was some more hopeful things, though, because previous Republican proposals have included, for example, zero dollars for the power grid, while this proposal included about $73 billion for the power grid. There’s also significant investments in public transit. So, you know, there are decent ideas in this bipartisan approach, but it is not a substitute for a climate bill at the scale that’s necessary.

And there’s also been questions raised about some of the pay-fors for this Republican bill. For example, they’ve been talking about putting taxes on electric vehicles — the exact opposite thing one should be doing right now. And Senator Sanders, in particular, has said that he is not interested in a proposal that does that, nor is President Biden, who campaigned on saying that he would not raise taxes for anybody making $400,000 or less. So, the pay-fors in the bipartisan approach are really lacking right now. They include things like repurposing COVID bills — sorry, COVID funds, which probably need to be spent on COVID. So, I think we need a little bit more details. And it’s clear that this bipartisan group is trying to work to figure out exactly what their plan is to pay for this new spending.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about the climate crisis in the West — I mean, we live in information silos that are determined in all different ways, including geographically — and for people to understand the significance of what’s happening, throughout Arizona, California and beyond?

LEAH STOKES: Absolutely. You know, I’ve only lived in California since 2015, and the droughts and fires and heat waves that I have experienced in that short time are really unprecedented. You know, I lived through the Thomas Fire, which was then the largest fire in modern California history. And there’s been information going around lately that that’s actually now the seventh-largest fire, and that only took place in 2017.

So, a lot of people in the western United States are just experiencing year after year of extreme heat waves, extreme drought, extreme fires, that we’ve really never seen before. This is why scientists are beginning to talk about things like megadroughts and megafires and mega-heat waves, these huge-scale events that don’t just span the western United States but go all the way to the Midwest, with record temperatures happening in June and then another record event likely to happen next week. It’s only June. Normally these kinds of extreme heat waves come in August. And we know from climate scientists that this is climate change, that heat waves are more than twice as likely to be happening because of climate change. And that’s from science that’s a few years old. I’m sure scientists are looking at what we’re seeing right now; they’re even more alarmed.

So, the climate crisis is really happening right now, and every single year we delay on passing a climate bill, the worse the crisis gets. Folks may remember that over a decade ago we tried to pass a climate bill, the Waxman-Markey bill. It failed in the Senate. And we have already had the president propose this American Jobs Plan at the end of March, and we have been waiting for almost three months to see Congress act. And while we wait, we see climate change happening all across the United States.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Professor Stokes, I wanted to ask you about the state roles in addressing the climate crisis. We are seeing reports all around the country now that state governments have more cash and more surplus than they’ve ever had in their histories, as a result of rebounding tax revenues and also federal assistance. California, New York, New Jersey, all these states have more money to spend this year than they’ve ever had before. And I’m wondering what your sense is of what states could be doing to direct some of those funds, since this is basically a one-shot situation for this year, perhaps next year, in terms of being able to address climate change at the state level?

LEAH STOKES: That’s a great question. You know, the great thing about acting on climate change is that it is an investment. When we’re talking about infrastructure, when we’re talking about one-time spending, it’s actually spending that pays itself back, both through the infrastructure itself as well as through job creation, all kinds of things throughout the economy. So, I think that you’re right that governors should be looking at spending money on climate change, building, for example, clean energy, helping to build more public transit and support that infrastructure, because if you put the money in at time one, it can actually pay you back over many years.

So, I do think that the states have an important role to play. But the federal government really has the power of the purse. And we’re not talking about sort of a one-time surplus. We’re talking about spending trillions of dollars on the climate crisis. And that is really just a down payment on the scale of the crisis. So, I think that we can’t sort of look away from the federal government. We have to see them act alongside states.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you, finally, talk about the report that you just co-authored with the Sierra Club, Professor Stokes, called “The Dirty Truth About Utility Climate Pledges,” looking at greenwashing by utility companies?

LEAH STOKES: Absolutely. So, several months ago, I worked with the Sierra Club to research: What are utilities planning to do? And they put out a lot of corporate pledges, saying that they wanted to decarbonize by, let’s say, 2050. But we compared those pledges to their actual investment behavior, to their proposals that they make about what they’d like to build. And the fact is, across this country we have about 230 fossil gas plants currently proposed. If those plants were built, it would be absolutely devastating for the climate crisis. And so, on the one hand, we have utilities saying, “Yes, we want to clean up. We want to address climate change,” but, on the other hand, we have them proposing massive amounts of fossil infrastructure.

And so, how do we reconcile these two things? Well, we have to recognize that if we really want to clean up our infrastructure, we need to have federal legislation, specifically a federal clean electricity standard. President Biden campaigned and won on a plan for 100% clean power by 2035. And it’s clear that there’s a lot of support from some utilities, as well as within Congress, to pass a clean electricity standard that would target 80% clean power by 2030.

And I wrote another report with Evergreen Action and Data for Progress which looked at how exactly we can do that as part of the budget reconciliation process. So, if we really want to get on top of the climate crisis, the power sector is the most important place to start, because if we have clean electricity, like 80% clean power by 2030, because of this clean electricity standard, and we combine that with electrification — things like electric vehicles, electric stoves and heat pumps — we can actually decarbonize about 75% of our economy. And when we talk about President Biden’s goal of cutting emissions by 50% by 2030, if we have that clean electricity standard and we pass that through Congress — we go to 80% clean by 2030 — the fact is we’d be more than halfway to meeting the president’s goal of cutting emissions by 50% by 2030.

So, really, there’s no substitute for laws, unfortunately. It’s one thing for utilities to say they’d like to do things, but we actually need legislation to make sure they do things. And that legislation at the federal level can actually be an investment to help them do things and to help them get on track with the pledges that they claim that they want to fulfill.

AMY GOODMAN: Leah Stokes, we want to thank you so much for being with us, assistant professor of political science at University of California, Santa Barbara, researcher on climate and energy policy, author of Short Circuiting Policy, also co-host of the podcast A Matter of Degrees. She is also on the advisory board at Evergreen Action.

Next up, striking coal miners from Alabama are here in New York to protest on Wall Street. The miners have been on strike since April. Stay with us.

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