Joe Biden is Captain Planet

But while fixing the climate, he'll have to fix democracy too

Not since World War II has the planet had such a need for a superhero. Forests are burning, hurricanes are raging, coasts are flooding, coral reefs are dying. Climate change is an “existential threat,” just as Joe Biden says, and he stands ready to lead a global crusade to save our environment for future generations. After the institutionalized climate-change denial of the Trump Administration—four precious years lost—it’s past time to change course. Global warming, though slow and insidious, is just as great a peril as the danger humanity faced when the Nazis overran Europe and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Our response has to be just as bold and determined as it was in the days of Roosevelt and Eisenhower: it’s time to declare all-out war on carbon emissions.

Knowing how critical this mission is, Biden is off to a flying start. If you look at Biden’s official acts during his first week in office, you’ll see that he considers climate “a big fucking deal,” to borrow a phrase he has used in a different context. On his Inauguration Day, he issued a climate-focused executive order that, among many other things, demanded an immediate review of all Donald Trump’s rollbacks of environmental regulations, cancelled the permit Trump granted for the infamous Keystone Pipeline and decreed a moratorium on the issuing of leases for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Arctic waters and the Bering Sea. Biden is bringing the U.S. back into the international Paris Climate Accord and has established a White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy and a National Climate Task Force consisting of just about all the Cabinet members and other top Administration officials so that climate impacts will be taken into account in just about everything the Government does. Biden has made fighting climate change a key element in his proposed infrastructure program, which the White House has astutely dubbed the American Jobs Plan and calls for spending $2 trillion over eight years.

Having passed the American Rescue Plan to counter the pandemic, Congress should be ready soon to move on infrastructure but it also has before it an issue even more urgent and just as vital to the planet: voting rights. Why vital to the planet? Because for decades action to combat climate change has been thwarted by politics. Both major parties have been guilty of dragging their feet. President Obama, for example, was as proud of increased oil and gas drilling as he was of his clean-energy initiatives. But Republicans have been outright obstructionists when it comes to strong climate policy. For two reasons: first, because they get big campaign contributions from the fossil-fuel industries and, second, because they tend to reject any policy that will require greater government control and regulation of the economy. Even so, I’ve never understood how Republicans can be so unconcerned about the climate and still sleep at night. Don’t they have children and grandchildren?

Donald Trump, who was elected President by a minority of Americans because of our skewed Electoral College system, took climate obstruction to an extreme, tearing down Obama’s initiatives to reduce carbon emissions. In the wake of Trump’s loss by more than 7 million votes, states controlled by Republican legislatures are moving frantically to make it harder to vote—targeting Black voters in particular—in hopes of restoring minority rule. But Trump and minority rule took us to the edge of climate catastrophe. We can’t let the minority take us over the edge. 

That’s why it’s imperative that the Senate pass a bill the House passed last month: the For the People Act. It would set national standards that would make it easier to vote and counter voter suppression, reduce the influence of big money in politics, and end partisan gerrymandering. Easier said than done, unfortunately. To get these crucial reforms passed, the Senate will probably have to eliminate its filibuster rule, which effectively requires that 10 Republicans have to join the Senate’s 50 Democrats to pass any legislation not related to the federal budget. But conservative Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona appear reluctant to go along with busting the filibuster rule, which could be ended or reformed by the vote of 50 Democrats and the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Harris. What about when the Republicans win back the Senate, some Democrats ask? We’ll need the filibuster then, they say. Well, if the Republican Party, in its current Trumpist form, regains the Senate, then the planet is toast. America and the world have no more time for inaction. This is the Democrats’ moment in power, and it may never come again. They need to go for broke and be just as ruthless as Mitch McConnell was when he denied Obama the right to appoint a Supreme Court Justice. And if Congress guarantees voting rights for all American citizens, today’s do-nothing-but-protect-business-and-the-rich Republicans will stay out of power until they reform themselves. Perhaps Manchin and Sinema will be persuaded or come to understand that if they end the filibuster and insure voting rights, they won’t just be saving our democracy and majority rule. They’ll be saving the planet.

Whatever the fate of the filibuster and the For the People Act, the House will probably pass some form of Biden’s American Jobs Plan and the Senate may be able to pass it with no Republican support through the budget reconciliation process, which bypasses the filibuster, as was done with the American Rescue Plan. Biden is smart to include climate action in his infrastructure package, which may even attract some Republican votes. No matter how lawmakers may feel about carbon emissions, it will be hard to argue against rebuilding roads and bridges and increasing Internet access. Amid a broad spectrum of spending, the Jobs Plan calls for upgrading the electrical grid, supporting and expanding public transit, building and retrofitting more than two million energy-efficient homes and commercial buildings, and boosting outlays for the research and development of climate-friendly technologies. In particular, Biden is proposing to spend $174 billion to jumpstart the electric-vehicle market by building 500,000 charging stations, supporting the development of better batteries, reinforcing tax incentives for buying electric cars and trucks and using the federal purse to buy them for the Government’s fleet. 

Even before unveiling the Jobs Plan, the Biden Administration launched an initiative to spur the building of offshore windmills and a program aimed at cutting the cost of solar energy by 60% within 10 years. The Government intends to set standards that will force utilities to phase out gradually the use of fossil fuels. The goal is to have a power grid 100% free of carbon pollution by 2035.

As Congress considers the Jobs Plan, we’re sure to hear the same old conservative arguments against it: the market can do things more efficiently than the Government, and the Government should not be trying to pick winners and losers. In fact, the “market” has brought us to the edge of climate catastrophe, and it cannot be allowed to take us over the edge. The one thing the Trump Administration did right during the pandemic was to pick out companies capable of developing a COVID-19 vaccine and throw a ton of money at them. That appears to have worked out nicely.

Of course, none of what Biden wants to do is free. He proposes to raise the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, which doesn’t totally reverse the huge tax cut, from 35% to 21%, that Congress gave companies during the Trump years. More important, Biden intends to close loopholes that allow corporations to evade taxes by various schemes, including booking profits in foreign countries with low tax rates. The White House cites a study showing that 91 Fortune 500 companies paid $0 in federal taxes on U.S. income in 2018, and another survey finding that the average corporation paid just 8%

Many environmental activists say that what Biden is proposing is not enough to stem the climate crisis, and they’re right. It’s a good start, but just a start. The sad truth is that we’ve endured four decades of anti-Government austerity, which began under Ronald Reagan. Even Democrat Bill Clinton declared that “the era of Big Government is over,” and Barack Obama was restrained by Congress and his own cautious nature. As a result, Biden faces such a large and varied backlog of human and economic needs that he can’t focus only on climate. We’ve underinvested in everything except the military. Soon Biden will follow up his American Jobs Plan with another multi-trillion-dollar proposal, called the American Families Plan, which will focus on “human infrastructure,” such as education and child care. 

The White House has suggested that this Infrastructure Part Two could be funded by tax hikes on the richest individuals, but Biden has promised that no household making less than $400,000 will see a tax hike. Rich people who actually pay their fair share of taxes will feel much better about paying more if Biden and Congress close the loopholes that help tax cheats like Donald Trump pay almost nothing in income taxes year after year.  One of the most important things Biden could do would be to increase sharply the budget of the Internal Revenue Service to pay for audits of corporations and wealthy taxpayers (but not to harass the middle class). A recent New York Times editorial describes an analysis suggesting that investing $100 billion in the I.R.S. in the next decade would enable the agency to collect “up to $1.4 trillion in lawful tax revenue that would otherwise go uncollected.”

We’re going to need a lot of that money to combat the climate crisis. Biden’s initial climate spending is just a drop in the bucket, but it could represent a turning point, and there is a clear path forward if the Democrats can just protect voting rights and stay in power. If the economy recovers and tax revenues grow, the White House will be able to—and must—move climate to the top of the agenda, where it belongs. For if we cannot keep our planet livable, then all our education and social programs will be for naught. Our effort to protect the climate will have to be sustained and relentless. We’ll have to spend more and more, year after year. But like all good investments, green technology will ultimately pay for itself, and then some. Biden and his successors will have to address—and impress—the nation repeatedly to make it clear that we are in a war for survival. We are also in an economic war with international rivals. If the U.S. doesn’t lead the world into the new era of sustainability, then China will.

As in any war, we should look to the military, which consumes a huge chunk of the national budget. Why do we spend so much more on weapons of destruction than we do on the infrastructure of survival? Historically, the Army Corps of Engineers has played a large role in building dams and other public works projects. Why don’t we redirect a substantial slice of our weapons budget, along with a sizable fraction of our military manpower and womanpower, toward building the green economy. I’d rather see soldiers installing solar panels on roofs than standing guard at a German airbase.

The last time we were in such a perilous state, we rose to the challenge. The Government commandeered private industry to build the planes and bombers we had to have. Millions of Americans enlisted to join the fight. We raised taxes—especially on the wealthy—to pay for our war effort. We saved the world that time. We can do it again. And our new Captain Planet, Joe Biden, seems very capable of leading the way.