Climate takes center stage in sweeping federal infrastructure plan

Development and climate change make environmental protection a high priority for Florida. Photo by NASA Earth Observatory

WASHINGTON  — U.S. House Democrats this week unveiled plans to spend $760 billion over five years on infrastructure upgrades throughout the country.

A central theme throughout their plan: combating climate change.

The framework unveiled by Democrats on Wednesday prioritizes slashing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector while also boosting resiliency in the face of a changing climate.

“Climate is a real opportunity within an infrastructure package to make significant progress that we couldn’t otherwise make in the more incremental way that we legislate in Congress,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat representing parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, told the Florida Phoenix on Capitol Hill.

Democrats hope to plow more than $34 billion into clean energy investments, including efforts to upgrade the electric grid to accommodate more renewable energy and grants for local governments to fund energy efficiency and conservation projects.

The plan also seeks to invest $1.5 billion in electric vehicle infrastructure “to assist the transition to zero-emissions vehicles.”

The sweeping package also aims to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on crumbling roads, bridges, and tunnels around the country while investing in mass transit, passenger rail, airports, and water infrastructure projects. It would put $1 billion toward helping communities address contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS chemicals.

Securing a bipartisan deal on infrastructure could present one of the most significant opportunities this year to legislate on climate change, as most other initiatives have ground to a halt amid the impeachment proceedings against President Trump and the 2020 elections.

Wasserman Schultz said it wouldn’t be the first time Congress tackled climate change with infrastructure investments.

After the passage of the economic stimulus bill known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act under the Obama administration, “we were able to point to that piece of legislation — even though it was focused on infrastructure projects all across the country — as one of the greatest achievements in environmental laws,” she said.

Environmental groups hailed the release of the Democrats’ infrastructure framework.

“This plan would help us address climate change by making long-overdue investments in transportation, safe drinking water, and clean energy including preparing for more frequent extreme weather events,” said Stephanie Gidigbi, director of policy and partnerships in the Healthy People & Thriving Communities program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Democrats and Republicans alike are eager to find common ground on the issue, particularly some freshman lawmakers anxious to declare a tangible legislative success ahead of their 2020 re-election bids.

Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a freshman Democrat from Florida, pointed to pressing infrastructure concerns in her Miami-Dade and Monroe County district such as maintenance of bridges that connect the Keys to Miami, problems caused by sea level rise, and a lack of public transportation.

But past infrastructure negotiations between congressional Democrats and the White House have collapsed.

Last May, Trump walked out of an infrastructure meeting with congressional Democrats, insisting they couldn’t work together during tense investigations against him. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) labeled the blowup a temper tantrum at the time.

And playing up the climate change aspects of their legislation might make it tougher for House Democrats to secure Republican support.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Republican representing the northern Tampa Bay region, welcomed a focus on climate change, but stressed that lawmakers “should work in a bipartisan fashion to get something done without hurting the economy. If we work together, we can come up with a solution,” he told the Phoenix.

Florida Rep. Greg Steube, a Republican House freshman representing south-central Florida, said he’d be willing to consider climate change proposals in an infrastructure bill. “It just depends on what it is. I don’t mind looking at it, seeing what it is they’re thinking about,” he said.

Wasserman Schultz said she hopes lawmakers can find broad consensus to tackle an urgent problem.

“There is pretty universal bipartisan support for an infrastructure bill,” she said. “Certainly, from Democrats’ standpoint, anything we can do to really move the ball aggressively down the field to fund improvements to arrest global warming and climate change, sea level rise.”

In Florida, sea level rise “is not a someday proposition,” she said. “We’re in the middle of it right now. I have so many communities that need to actually lift their roads above sea level to prevent flooding. This is the kind of thing that I think can build wide consensus.”

But at least a few House Republicans this week suggested that Democrats’ focus on climate change would indeed make bipartisan compromise difficult.

“Why don’t we just focus on infrastructure in the infrastructure bill?” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) when asked about the climate provisions.

“Of course,” the climate language will make negotiations more difficult, said Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), who’s on Trump’s impeachment defense team. Lesko added that she’s not optimistic about passing major legislation, given the heightened partisan tensions on Capitol Hill.

“The rhetoric that is going on right now in this whole impeachment thing is just taking over everything,” she said.

But Democrats say they’re optimistic about the effort’s chances this time around.

“These are not message bills,” Pelosi insisted Wednesday during the Democrats’ press conference. “We are hoping that we will have the support of the Republicans and the president of the United States.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat and chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, told Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis by letter Wednesday that climate change poses “an enormous threat to Florida.”

She urged him to build a clean-energy economy in Florida that ends the state’s dependence on fossil fuels that cause climate change.

“I encourage you to be bold in establishing Florida’s clean energy future and moving the state away from polluting fossil fuels and their exorbitant costs. Naysayers and vested dirty fuel interests often argue that the transition to clean energy is too costly. Actually, the cost of doing nothing – the status quo – is an enormous threat to Florida,” says the letter, published as a press release on the Climate Crisis committee’s website.

“Florida should be a national leader in building the clean energy economy and take our place among the responsible stewards of our planet for our children and future generations. You have the opportunity of a lifetime to move Florida forward, and I urge you to do so with courage and vision.”

Florida Phoenix reporter Laura Cassels contributed to this report.