Op-ed: Save the world with green infrastructure

Source: By A. DONALD MCEACHIN, The Hill • Posted: Monday, January 7, 2019

Climate change poses an existential threat to our society. A string of recent reports — including the Trump administration’s own National Climate Assessment — have made it clear that we are running out of time. To prevent catastrophic damage, we need to limit global warming to 1.5° Celsius; according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that means reducing net carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2050.

President Trump is blind to the danger we face: he calls climate change a “hoax,” and his administration has rolled back climate protections at every turn. Perhaps the president will someday see reason — but we cannot afford to wait for that day. If we do not act quickly, our children and grandchildren will inherit a vastly poorer, less healthy, and less livable world.

Fortunately, there is still a path to progress. While he refuses to act on climate change, President Trump seems willing to invest in our physical infrastructure — a longtime Democratic priority. I believe the two parties can strike a deal — but it has to be totally green. If we pass an infrastructure bill, every word of that bill needs to speed our transition to a clean, sustainable economy — an economy powered by renewable energy and built on green jobs. Investing in truly green infrastructure could help save the world as we know it; given the dangers we face, anything less — including otherwise-welcome investments — would be an unacceptable failure.

A successful green infrastructure bill will need to pass several tests.

First, the bill should take immediate, concrete steps to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2018, global emissions rose by well over 2 percent. To meet a zero emissions goal by 2050, they need to fall by more than 3 percent per year. Reversing the current trend means bringing new wind and solar plants online, encouraging distributed generation, aggressively promoting energy efficiency, and investing in the kind of technologies (like improved energy storage) that make renewable energy more practical and more affordable over time.

Second, the bill needs to create green, well-paying jobs — not overseas, but here at home. Renewable energy can be an economic dynamo: already, the solar industry employs twice as many people as the coal industry. While many green jobs are un-outsourceable (we cannot build or maintain wind turbines remotely), other work — from manufacturing solar panels to developing better batteries — could happen almost anywhere. As we invest taxpayer dollars in creating those jobs, we need to use “buy American” provisions and other policy tools to maximize the work that happens here at home.

Third, all Americans need to share in the benefits of new investment. We need to ensure that new green jobs are created in the struggling communities that need them most. Monies we spend to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, and to promote resiliency in the face of hurricanes and wildfires and other disasters, need to be fairly apportioned. For too long, rural and low-income communities, and communities of color, have gotten short shrift; too often, they have had no voice in decisions that directly affect their health and well-being. These communities have disproportionately borne the harms from pollution, and they are poised to suffer disproportionately from climate change. We cannot let that happen: the decades-long pattern of environmental injustice needs to end, and a green infrastructure bill offers a means of making that much-needed change.

These ideas are not new, and they should not be controversial. For many months, Democrats have pushed to ensure that any infrastructure deal moves our economy in a more sustainable direction. At the start of 2017, Senate Democrats unveiled a comprehensive blueprint that called for a $100 billion investment in twenty-first century energy infrastructure — money that would have gone to modernizing our electrical grid, reforming renewable energy incentives, and promoting greater energy efficiency. Another $25 billion would have gone to increase communities’ resilience in the face of natural disaster. On the House side, my friend and colleague, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), introduced another package — the Leading Infrastructure For Tomorrow’s (LIFT) America Act—that shared many of those same goals.

Both plans were well-intended and thoughtfully-crafted; they form an excellent baseline for any future bill. But today we know that the dangers of climate change are likely greater, and certainly more pressing, than we realized even two years back. And with Democrats soon to assume control of the House of Representatives, we have both a stronger mandate and a greater ability to shape legislation. We should use every bit of that new influence to ensure that Congress acts in proportion to the challenges we face: we need a transformative bill that begins to fundamentally remake our economy along more sustainable lines. To settle for less would be a profound disservice not just to our current constituents, but to every generation still to come.

McEachin represents the 4th District of Virginia and is ranking member of the Natural Resources Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.