Infrastructure, Infrastructure!

Activists get mad at the overly cautious politicians. Politicians get mad at the activists for asking them to do stuff that might cost them their jobs. Various coalition actors get mad that a focus on environmental racism means that some unionized workers might have to stop doing what they’re doing. Environmental justice folks feel that workers don’t think or care enough the impacts of what they do.

An interview with Julian Brave NoiseCat

Photograph via Oregon Department of Transportation.

Julian Brave NoiseCat is a writer, activist, and policy advocate. A Vice President of Policy & Strategy with Data for Progress and a fellow at the Type Media Center, he has written on climate, politics, and justice for a wide range of publications, including Canada’s National Observer, where he is a columnist. He is currently working on a survey about Indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada.

When we spoke over the phone during the last week of July, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework was working its way through contentious Senate negotiations. Since then, the Framework has grown into an extensive $1 trillion bill that includes an array of amendments and line items, some more and some less equipped to address climate change. The separate $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, which will include a majority of the Biden Administration’s proposed climate spending, is scheduled to be taken up by Congress later this year.

Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.

Katy Lederer There are two big climate-related bills or packages coming through Congress right now. To start, could you describe those two packages in broad strokes?

Julian Brave Noisecat Right now Congress and the administration are talking about infrastructure, so we’re finally getting “Infrastructure Week”—a long-running joke in Washington, because it never happens—for the first time in, I think, all of our lifetimes. Because of the weirdness of Senate procedures, and also the strangeness of our two-party system, we’ll be taking up infrastructure potentially in two phases.

The first part, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, is a deal that was hashed out between President Biden and ten of the more moderate Republican senators about a bipartisan set of infrastructure investments that would include funding for things like public transit, passenger and freight rail, electric vehicle charging stations, and clean drinking water infrastructure. Those will total over half a trillion dollars in new spending.

That brings me to the second package, which totals $3.5 trillion. This is also a set of more robust infrastructure investments that would be authorized through budget reconciliation, the senate procedure that allows you to pass a law with fifty votes plus one, the plus one in this case being the Vice President’s tie-breaking vote.

The second piece of infrastructure legislation, importantly, is where a lot of the spending on climate change will likely happen, if we get it done, because even moderate Republicans don’t want to fund programs that promote clean energy, electric vehicles, and general climate action at the scale that Democrats want.

So, on the one hand, you have the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, negotiated by the “Gang of Ten.” On the other, you have the budget reconciliation, a roughly $3.5 trillion package, where you’re going to get a lot more of the big climate measures. And there’s a weird game of chicken going on between the two because some more moderate actors, like Senator Manchin, have suggested that if the bipartisan deal doesn’t happen then the reconciliation deal can’t happen. On the other hand, you have some more liberal activists and elected officials saying that the bipartisan deal can’t happen if the budget reconciliation bill doesn’t happen. 

KL Would it be fair to say this is the biggest window of opportunity for doing something about climate on the federal level since 2008 and 2009?

JBN Yes, there’s a very slim window between now and the midterm elections in 2022, and realistically between now and early next year, to actually take some legislative action on climate change. This would be the most significant window to get that done since the failed attempt to pass a cap-and-trade called Waxman-Markey in the first term of the Obama Administration. What happened during Waxman-Markey was that the cap-and-trade bill made it to the House but never made it to the Senate floor for a vote.

The question now is: if the first time was tragedy, the second time will be . . . what? We don’t know what’s going to happen this second time. This time, the margins for the Democratic party—the margin for error, if you just look at the number of seats that the Democrats hold—is much slimmer. We have a 50–50 Senate, you could not have a smaller majority, and in the House of Representatives we have a very small majority. We’re really in a situation where a simple car crash, a MeToo scandal, anything like that could honestly derail history from happening.

KL Correct me if this isn’t fair, but my impression is that, in terms of his available political capital back in 2009, Obama had to make a choice between health care and climate. One or the other, and he chose health care. Since then, my sense is that the climate community has become a lot more politically sophisticated and creative, and now it’s less of an either/or—climate is now framed more consciously as integral to the larger left-moderate and progressive agendas. Is that right?

JBN It’s a really interesting and complicated question. I wasn’t professionally involved in this stuff in 2009, and I think it’s often easy for younger progressives to pooh-pooh the efforts of the prior generation—obviously we have the benefit of hindsight, and they obviously failed to pass Waxman-Markey, and some fairly influential postmortems of that legislative failure have been written. I’m thinking in particular of one by Theda Skocpol, in which she highlighted the fact that there was not a grassroots social movement around climate in 2009.

A big change today is that there is now a significant climate activist movement, probably most visibly led by the youth climate group the Sunrise Movement. And there are also a number of other participants from environmental justice and climate justice communities who live with the disproportionate burdens of poverty and pollution, as well as more engagement from some unions, as well as from the traditional environmental coalitions.

So on the one hand, there is now, among liberal and left-leaning climate activists, a desire to show the interconnectedness of all these issues, and to find the policies to address them. Classic environmental justice offers a good illustration of this sort of thinking: Our health is directly impacted by the air we breathe, the water we drink, and communities that are living on the fence lines of fossil fuel power plants, for example, live with that disproportionate environmental health burden. The environmental justice framework calls that environmental racism, because those communities are very often communities of color and working-class communities. So we know that these various strands of environmentalism, racial justice, labor, et cetera can be tightly woven together. But in practice, for the Democratic party—which of course has since at least the Civil Rights era represented a really broad set of constituencies, from workers who build pipelines to indigenous communities of color that have to live with the toxicity of those pieces of infrastructure—there just aren’t as many policy levers that weave together all of those threads as left-of-center finance and policy advocates and activists might like.

One example of something that does weave together all of those threads is electric buses. Electric buses obviously cut down on emissions. They provide transit, often to working people, that maybe doesn’t require folks to own a car and have car insurance—there are all sorts of economic justice benefits from that. They also cut down on the pollution that is disproportionately burdening communities that live along freeways and highways, live with all the stuff that’s coming out of exhaust pipes. But the funding for them is potentially under threat, so even this sort of quintessential example of an opportunity to fight climate change from a racial justice perspective and decarbonize and promote good, often unionized jobs, might not be funded at the level that you might want to see.1

Even in the Democrats’ proposed reconciliation package, the Department of the Interior led by the first Native American Cabinet Secretary, Deb Haaland, received no new funding. Meanwhile the Energy Department’s budget is set to grow as much as threefold.

KL I read that the Yale Program on Climate Change put out a poll saying that the number of Americans who are “alarmed” about climate change has doubled in the last five years, to 24 percent. But it doesn’t always feel like being alarmed really makes much difference as a political actor. Do you feel like that kind of ambient sense of growing alarm is helping these packages move along, or is the political process a little bit immune to that more visceral shift in sentiment? How is a growing sense of alarm affecting policy right now?

JBN I think that most politicians—especially politicians who have to win in very competitive districts, and therefore the ones who at the end of the day determine who holds the majority—are very good and careful at reading polls. At the same time as the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has found more Americans concerned about climate change, which I think is probably true—you can basically see, at this point, with the smoke drifting across the country, climate change literally hanging in the air—there are polls that show that the partisan divide on climate change has never been greater than it is at present. Even as folks are more concerned about it, I think the climate is increasingly part of the culture war. It has been deeply, deeply polarized.

Terms like “global warming” and “climate change,” and even, honestly, at this point, “renewable energy” and “clean energy,” are very often read as liberal, and as partisan. I think that has, very unfortunately, led to a risk aversion on the part of Democrats at the national level—they’re afraid to appear too liberal on the issue. It’s notable that Biden is not selling his climate and infrastructure package as explicitly focused on climate. When he unveiled it, it was called “the American Jobs Plan.”

Most of the time, when Democrats talk about infrastructure, they’re not explicitly talking about it in terms of our need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I think what that means is that the path forward is actually a bit narrower than most climate advocates like to admit.

There is not, in fact, an army of people across the country who consider climate change to be the biggest issue that we should be addressing. In some other polling, it’s not even in the top five issues, sometimes it’s not even in the top ten. What that might mean is that we need to find ways to talk about policies that will address climate change in terms that aren’t always explicitly climate-oriented or environmental. At the same time, I think that we have to be honest in the assessment that, if we’re going to address the climate in a significant way, politicians—particularly in battleground states and districts—are taking a little bit of a political risk. There’s an even narrower window to advocate within if you’re looking at it in these crude electoral terms.

KL You’re very astute politically, you’re very good at articulating and framing some of these complicated issues. You’re also an excellent, passionate creative writer. I’m just curious, in your practice, your life, how you think about the relationships between your political work, your creative work, and your activist work? Do you change hats? Is it all of a piece? Do you think that one is more professional and one is more of an avocation?

JBN I could actually answer that a couple of ways. The first is, I’m a Native kid who grew up in a single-mother household in Oakland, California. From a very young age I had a sense of deep personal and social injustice that stretched back to the genocide perpetrated against Native peoples and resonated in my present and in my own family. At the same time, I think that I’m a naturally very curious person. I believe that truth is the only ground upon which justice can stand.

But very often, the truth is not simple, and so if we’re very serious and steadfast in our desire for justice, I think that we need to be willing to grapple with the entire truth and not two-dimensional versions of it that we maybe tell ourselves to make things easier or simpler. So activism led me to an interest in writing and history, and to the power of argument. It also led me to an interest in policy and potentially politics because, at the end of the day, a lot really is determined by who does and does not win office and hold power.

I was also pushed toward politics by the reality of journalism in the 21st century. If I was around in the ’60s or something, maybe I would have just gone all in on journalism. But because of the precarity of being a millennial in a bizarrely capitalist world where you can’t necessarily just pursue your passions, I hedged my bets by also going into the world of policy and advocacy, which has been my primary career. Writing has been mostly a side gig. (I have the opportunity to write a book now, so that’s changing slowly.) 

KL Do you feel like any one of these modalities—creative writing, political advocacy, journalism—is more or less effective, as far as your ability to create change or change things around you? Do you feel more or less powerful in certain guises or certain roles?

JBN I don’t know if I ever feel powerful per se, but sometimes, in the rare event where you say or write something and it influences someone, that does feel like a real privilege. It’s something you can never really control as a writer or a communicator but is obviously what motivates a lot of us. It’s often elusive, but I think that’s what a lot of us originally think we’re doing when we get into it.

I came to writing because of my desire for personal and social justice. I believe I stayed because if you really want to do it, you have to really care about the art of it. In the vast majority of instances where your work did not influence anyone or anything, or where the influence might feel really distant, I think that if you are very focused on the craft, that itself can become fulfilling.

KL This circles back, actually, to the beginning of our conversation. We were talking about Joe Manchin and some of these other politicians, and how they have to couch so much of this legislation in palatable language. I was just looking at some of the things that are in these packages: “clean electricity standard,” obviously, “clean energy,” “clean procurement”—this language is very dry, almost surgical. The writing in this upcoming legislation is its own kind of craft.

While an activist organization like the Sunrise Movement might use very passionate rhetoric, it eventually gets translated into this really palatable, almost corporate language. Is that right, or is there something else going on with the sterility of the legislative prose?

JBN I think it varies by various people’s calculations on what makes a policy appealing, even as it might make it less likely to be torpedoed by Manchin or Schumer or someone like that. I think, for example, the way that Biden, and Schumer, and the Sunrise Movement talk about the Civilian Climate Corps explicitly echoes the New Deal in much more activist-y terms that are designed to appeal to younger progressives.

Then, there are more technocratic phrases like the “clean electricity standard”—which I think is now called the “Clean Electricity Payment Program”; they might even rename it again. While obviously a lot of liberals are behind it, it’s also designed to not catch the eye of an Arizona or West Virginia senator who might be intent on proving how independent they are from the New York and San Francisco and Seattle elite.

KL Do politicians just think, “Oh, they’re going to run an ad about me. ‘Clean energy’ doesn’t sound so bad”? Is it very basic in that way, avoiding criticism?

JBN Yes, I think that it’s about mitigating risk. What’s also really fascinating to me is that the moderates live more on vibes than on policy substance right now, because, very unfortunately, politics happens in an extremely low-information environment. What’s become clear over time with, for example, Senator Manchin, is that one might imagine that the senator from the poorest state in the Union might actually have a few policy preferences to help get his voters and his state into a more prosperous situation. If he’s the deciding vote, he should clearly be able to leverage for basically whatever he wants. Not to say that he doesn’t have some policy preferences, but he doesn’t appear to have that sort of history. Instead, it’s a lot more about, what does this legislation signal to the rest of the country, and in particular, to Trump-Manchin voters in West Virginia.

KL Infrastructure is funny because you can make it sound very “macho,” for lack of a better word.

JBN A lot of big strong men in hard hats, yes.

KL Yes. I see, in that sense, the utility, in that the Republicans might not be bluffing on wanting their own bipartisan package that can be a little bit “macho.” To separate these packages seems smart to me.

Actually, that’s one of my last questions for you. Do you think these packages are going to pass? Or are they going to be a lot smaller, or passed in pieces?

JBN I’m really hopeful that we’ll get them done. It does appear to me that the packages’ fates may be tied together. The thing that I’m unclear about is these ten Republicans and what their game is. I can picture what most Democrats are thinking. But if both moderate and progressive Democrats need to be able to say, “We did the bipartisan infrastructure thing in order to do the big party-line package that includes all the progressive things,” what do these Republicans need to be able to say? What is their gain here? Are they honestly hoping to get something done on infrastructure? Are they maybe hoping to show to the country that there’s another way beyond Trumpism? Is this the last gasp of the center-right to find some alternative, or are they trying to run out the clock, and to turn liberals against moderates in an effort to prevent us from doing a quasi–New Deal type of thing? There’s an element of poker in what’s going on right now.

It’s a really messy and complicated and scary moment that feels like it’s going to be incredibly consequential for at least the next decade and, arguably, for whatever follows in the course of human and environmental history. I think that people rightfully get frustrated with each other. Activists get mad at the overly cautious politicians. Politicians get mad at the activists for asking them to do stuff that might cost them their jobs. Various coalition actors get mad that a focus on environmental racism means that some unionized workers might have to stop doing what they’re doing. Environmental justice folks feel that workers don’t think or care enough the impacts of what they do.

And despite all that, I think that most people are behaving responsibly. I used to say that the scariest thing about climate change is that you’d show up, and I always thought that there’d be some adults in the room that actually had a plan. And then the scariest thing about going into the climate space was you showed up and it turned out nobody actually had a plan or knew what to do. But it seems that, in this moment where there’s so much at stake, everyone wants us to get something good done. At least on the left side of the aisle, people are being fairly disciplined: pushing when there needs to be pushing, persuading when there needs to be persuading, accommodating where accommodations need to be made.

  1. The proposed deal reduced the funding for electric school buses—from roughly $20 billion to about $2.5 billion. 

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