It's All About the Money
by Mike Williams
October 20, 2021
This interview with Mike Williams, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Mike | I'm on the energy and environment team, but my focus is on how we put forward energy, environmental, and climate policy in a way that supports working people. My background is working at the intersection of labor and environmental movements. I spent 12 years at the BlueGreen Alliance, focused on passing some significant climate, energy, and environmental policy alongside the labor movement.
frank | How has your work been lately?
Busy, but positive. I think there's a lot of good things that are on the horizon.
I think it's nice that everyone is starting to engage in infrastructure. Does it feel like people are finally paying attention to some of this work you’ve been doing?
Yeah, when I worked for the BlueGreen Alliance, we started pushing the connection between solving the climate crisis and remaking our infrastructure. I think we started really putting it out as a public proposal in 2012, with a report called Making the Grade, when Superstorm Sandy hit New York City. So yes. Been at this for quite a while. It's phenomenal that this has finally broken through, that folks have made the connection between climate change and infrastructure, and that hopefully, we can get to some significant solutions.
To look at the infrastructure as it exists is to realize how massive it is in scale, but also how regional it is. How do you start thinking about modernizing the infrastructure and outlining priorities?
It's an incredibly important question and it's one that gets into the nuts and bolts of how you actually implement infrastructure policy. Some folks think it can be quite boring, but it is so important because what this will eventually come down to is actually building projects that change how our systems work. We have to think about it in a couple of different ways. One, there's obviously the function of the project. We have to make sure that whether we're rebuilding roads, rebuilding bridges, building transit systems, repairing the electric grid, or rebuilding water systems, they have to be safe and reliable. In the end, we're humans who need these systems to live and to have a decent quality of life.
Water, electricity, the internet — these things are public goods. They truly have to be safe and reliable.
The mindset around infrastructure in the past has been "we need to get the best bang for our buck." There needs to be a better purpose for our infrastructure projects. In addition to being safe and reliable, they need to meet the moment and achieve the goals that we as a society have. We need to make sure that our infrastructure projects think about their goals in a holistic manner. How are our goals lifting up communities and working for people who live in them? The projects need to be paying people decent wages, providing benefits, and using unionized labor. The projects need to pollute less, or potentially eradicate pollution at the point source. So that it's making everything around it better.
When we think about reductions, specifically reducing our emissions by 50 percent, what steps need to happen for that to be seriously attempted or achieved?
Before the last nine months, I would have been pretty worried that we could get to that metric, but with the investments at the forefront in Congress right now, I think we can get there.
When we sit down and we again look at it comprehensively, each system has its role to play. Some more than others, but they all add to emissions. When you think of the big ones, like the electric system, the shift to renewables and electrification is huge.
How do we get to zero emissions? Renewables are the biggest driver of that, but additionally, there needs to be a corresponding investment in transmission and storage. We need to be able to build transmission projects to move that electricity to the population centers where people need it. These renewables are to a certain extent intermittent, so we need high capacity transmission, and be able to store energy and then deliver it when people need it.
The technologies are there. We just need to be able to deploy them, at scale. We need rapid deployment of electric vehicles, and we need a major expansion of electric vehicle infrastructure. That's not just charging stations, but an updated and functional electric grid that can deal with all of these vehicles being plugged in.
All of these pieces together can take us beyond the emissions reductions set forth in the Paris Agreement. It can get us on the path to a 50% emissions reduction, which President Biden has called for. But again, this is across multiple sectors. I didn't even get into manufacturing. I didn't get into municipal wastewater management, so on and so forth. They all have their roles to play, but it's that direct investment that will get us there.
As far as implementation goes, how does this rollout? The scale makes it seem top-down.
The coordination from local all the way up to the federal government will be critical.
Funding is top-down. Planning and implementation are generally local.
There are municipal planning organizations in every city across America that are specifically focused on planning for infrastructure projects in their area. So, whether that is Austin, Texas figuring out what we are going to do with their transit system, or whether it is Trenton, New Jersey saying their road situation is a mess, all these planning organizations have put forward their ideas of what would we do if we had this money?
Now it is a matter of starting to put those ideas into motion. The money is hopefully coming. A lot of the planning has already been done locally. The federal government has the capacity to start to approve currents and future projects quickly, and then it's just going to start to move.
But, there isn't much planning needed. A lot of this stuff has been thought out. A lot of it is fairly straightforward. For example, there's been work from the Department of Interior for more than a decade, specifically on how we permit and locate offshore wind projects. These projects need an injection of funding right now from the federal government, and we need to set forward clear goals for what that funding is used for. And so, again to harp on it, the bills that are going through Congress right now do both of those things. It's helping us meet the goal that we need to reduce emissions by 50%, and it's providing the money to back that up. Once we give the money to local municipalities, I have full faith that it can be done.
I wanted to ask about challenges that rural areas face in terms of climate and adaptation, that are different from cities which we talk a lot about.
For a long time, rural areas have been under-invested in. We can see that across multiple areas. Broadband is the most obvious one. Rural areas do not have decent internet access. That is inequitable for people who live in rural areas. You're not as competitive in the job market if you do not have high-quality broadband. That is a hallmark of underinvestment in rural areas. We're about to go hopefully forward with massive investments in our country that will include rural areas. President Biden has called for 40% to go to disadvantaged communities, black and brown communities, environmental justice communities, and that will include rural communities. That's incredibly important.
Hopefully, we make this investment, and hopefully, we do it right. We also need to be thinking about 5, 10, 20 years down the road, when ongoing maintenance needs to happen, will we have set up processes that are providing consistent financial support to ensure disadvantaged communities aren't left behind? Hopefully, this will not just be a one-time thing, but that we actually provide the consistent financial support to ensure that there's equitable access and equitable funding available to these places.
In terms of revitalizing parts of the US that were sucked dry from abandoned industry – when it comes to new climate-oriented infrastructure do people seem excited or is it politicized and pushed back against?
Yeah. It's a critical question. And I appreciate you asking about it. Deindustrialization has been one of the biggest drivers of inequality in America. We should be thinking about how this could be a way to help communities build for the future.
One current example is Rivian in Normal, Illinois. It was the old Mitsubishi manufacturing facility. They closed down, they were purchased, and are now making electric trucks. I think they're gonna start putting them out in public by next year. It's a pretty darn cool story, that would be even better if they honored that plant and town’s history and allowed their workers to collectively bargain. Normal, IL is benefiting from this investment. I saw an article that referred to them as a boomtown because of this investment. It's a great story. But, it's not always going to be just that specific story. I hope there'll be a lot of those stories. The way we make this happen, the way investments need to be made, they need to be made with domestic content included so that we're making investments that have American manufacturing incorporated into it. They need to make the investments that are made so that when projects are built, they're built using union labor so that we are truly lifting up as many people in the community as possible. Again, we need to think about this holistically.
Investment in infrastructure allows for that community to build for the future to think about what they can do to support the people there. So whether it's building out broadband, refurbishing the schools, making a small incubator for craft beer – that's a choice that they can make once the investment in infrastructure comes on top of that back.
And circling back to your question with this massive investment and influx of funds into the clean economy, there will be an expansion of the supply chain. Batteries, the parts, and components of wind turbines–there's roughly seven tons of steel per turbine–all of this can be made in America.
If we're truly incorporating domestic content in these investments, that's going to support American manufacturing. Same with solar panels. You know we make glass in America, that's put into solar panels. We used to make polysilicon, it's critical for making photovoltaic solar panels, but over the last 10 to 15 years, a lot of that production moved to China. That's a long way to answer your question, but thinking about how this investment should help de-industrialized and disadvantaged communities and disadvantaged communities is critical to the success of this investment, and should be prioritized.
Outside of rehab, what are your thoughts on helping people move from areas that can’t be saved? I know retreat is looked at in this really negative way, but sometimes that’s inevitable.
It is a hard and controversial question. When will folks say, “South Beach doesn't work anymore?” I mean, it's a horrifying question to ponder, but if you trust science, it's a real question that will need to be pondered. It coincides with a need for investment in resilience in communities, the ability for a community to adapt and thrive in the face of climate change and its impacts.
Because we will see these changes, they are already baked in. We are going to have to deal with that in places like Louisiana, Miami, New York. We have to invest in resilience, so that we can make that determination in the future, with more clarity.
I'm punting because I think we have to punt at this point.
We haven't actually made that investment in resilience in our communities in any big way. We have to do that first to see what we can salvage for the people who live there. That is job number one. And then from there, we then can start to evaluate the really hard question of places we can't. That's already happening in Louisiana.
The seas have risen across Southern Louisiana in the Gulf, and they are losing a football field a day of land. There are communities down there that are already swamped. There does need to be an investment in and support for communities that are already dealing with this, that can't punt that question, but for the rest, it truly is a matter of, we have to make this investment in resilience first.
I want to be careful of your time, so I'll make this additional question quick – are we past the point of arguing about the existence and impacts of climate change? There will be arguments about how to move forward, but are we done with the denial?
I hope so. I really hope so. It's hard to say that I'm optimistic that we can get there, but I sure hope so. There has been polling done by Yale and others, and the polling is positive across the board. Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals agree that yes there is a problem, and yes, we should deal with it. The vast majority of people seem to agree. Where it starts to falter is when it gets into our political system.
And our political system is making a lot of things falter these days. I think climate change has been a harbinger. This issue became very partisan, but it didn’t used to be. We entered the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in an effort to bring all countries together to fight climate change in 1992, under President George H.W. Bush. George W. Bush ran on pursuing climate action in 2000. He didn't actually do anything. In fact, he made it worse. John McCain ran on passing a cap-and-trade bill in 2008. These things used to not be partisan, but they are now and that's terrible.
It would seem like Governor DeSantis would have a lot to gain from putting Miami first in terms of resilience and climate. Even if that’s cynical, I don’t understand the hold-up.
Do you know who one of the few Republicans in Congress has stood up and said, “We need to act on climate change?”
A very far right-wing representative from Florida. He's from the panhandle of Florida and has seen direct impacts.
A number of years ago, Congressman Bob English from South Carolina came to a realization that we need to do something about the climate crisis; he got primaried because of it and lost.
But, that was a number of years ago. I agree with you, I think a person like Governor DeSantis could actually make a positive move on climate that would be very politically beneficial.
That the climate crisis became such a partisan fight was simply a harbinger of how everything has become a partisan fight. This was just the first of the other big issues. We have seen this happen to others. Immigration used to be a very bipartisan issue. It is no longer. Hopefully, this fever will break. Again, as I said before, I don't know if I can say I'm optimistic right now. I hope so, but I'm not sure.