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Why Mainstream Media Struggles to Explain the Infrastructure Plan’s Climate Spending

The bill spends a historic amount on climate—and it’s still a travesty.

Members of the press raise their hands as Jen Psaki conducts a news conference.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki conducts the daily news conference.

The 2,072-page text of the bipartisan infrastructure bill was released late Sunday night. From a climate perspective, it’s peanuts. The $1.2 trillion package contains $550 billion of new spending to be dispensed over a decade, which amounts to roughly $55 billion of new money per year. Some of that will be devoted to helping mitigate and adapt to a climate crisis that could render roughly 20 percent of the earth’s surface too hot for human civilization before babies born today turn 50. Amendments could make that figure bigger or smaller.

This bill is simultaneously “the largest investment in climate resilience in American history,” per the Times, and a complete abdication of responsibility. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible for reporters to emphasize that dual reality when trying to summarize the details of these types of gargantuan bills, which remain the only way our teetering antebellum political democracy invests in itself.

Searching even for top-line numbers in such massive bills is a tall task. White House Fact Sheets are the best available shorthand. But White House Fact Sheets are also propaganda documents. Newsrooms aren’t equipped with Congressional Research Service veterans ready to decode what the oh-so-careful legalese in a brick of legislation actually means. Neither do most journalists have the time, expanded word limits, or expertise to figure out where money is being allocated directly to perform a certain task as opposed to bundled out to private companies in the hopes they do it.

Dogged Hill reporters tracking the ins and outs of these measures are not climate experts, and so largeish-looking top-line numbers (billions!) for things like grid reliability and electric vehicle charging stations look pretty good. The climate experts reporters tend to call up to interview about these figures are also generally trying to get one of their own priorities through, so they might not be as honest as they would be otherwise. “Leftists” who do criticize legislation are cast as grumps looking to extract their own political wins instead of people trying desperately to salvage hopes for a livable future, begging anyone at all to listen to study after peer-reviewed study saying millions of people will die without a radical change of course. But you can forgive reporters who spend most of their time interviewing people whose entire lives are dedicated to extracting wins for Team Red or Team Blue for making that mistake.

Climate advocates are currently pushing for whatever didn’t show up in this bill—like a Clean Energy Standard and a Civilian Conservation Corps—to be included in the $3.5 trillion reconciliation budget slated to follow it. They’re also hoping that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema get up on the right side of bed when the reconciliation budget eventually comes up for a vote. Democrats are negotiating with idiosyncratic members of their own party and an opposition whose main interests are to protect their donors and (accordingly) to keep the country as miserable as possible before voters head to the polls in 2022. The resulting bill is a Frankenstein’s monster without either a good story or a tender soul to go with it.

The bill text shows how high the stakes are for getting something better through. The bipartisan infrastructure package includes only $73 billion to upgrade the entire nation’s flailing electrical grid and $39.5 billion for public transit. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will get $11.6 billion to build things that will dredge rivers and control floods, and $4.7 billion for cleaning up orphaned gas wells. Those numbers are far too low—but because I haven’t had 12 hours to pore through the relevant studies, I can’t tell you by precisely how much. What I can tell you is that these bill numbers are mostly made up by the team of senators who haggled over them. The numbers at some point may have corresponded to a real need, as articulated by a think tanker who transmitted their PDF to a congressional staffer who made a recommendation to their boss, who then maybe also talked to a corporate lobbyist about it. The process by which those figures were chopped down behind closed doors bears almost no relationship to physical realities.

In order to do the basic job of political journalism—informing readers what policies their government is proposing to enact—reporters have to take this bill piece by piece and generate headlines about the amount it dedicates to transportation, or climate resilience. The nation’s mainstream establishment publications have done precisely that.

But there’s a fine line between presenting a policy and implying coherence or intention where neither exist. And to put it simply, modern media outlets aren’t structured to report these bills the way they ought to: highlighting what abstract figures mean on the ground, including what sorts of vital projects will be left behind. Well-funded local newsrooms could dissect exactly how much money would find its way out to districts. Data teams could make those figures easier to parse, juxtaposing them against the onslaught of studies about what’s really needed to keep warming under control. Cable news networks that weren’t high on palace intrigue could help their millions of viewers make sense of all those big and still way-too-small numbers. The media landscape in the United States is short on all of the above.