The second reason is climate mitigation, which requires the reduction of fossil-fuel emissions. It involves an economic concept known as the social cost of carbon, or the cost to future generations of the carbon we emit today. The economist William Nordhaus has pegged the social cost of carbon at $44 per ton, meaning each new ton we emit incurs future costs worth at least $44 in 2010s money. The Obama and Biden administrations, relying partly on his model, arrived at a social cost of about $50.
- A new year, a new budget: The 2022 fiscal year for the federal government begins on October 1, and President Biden has revealed what he’d like to spend, starting then. But any spending requires approval from both chambers of Congress.
- Ambitious total spending: President Biden would like the federal government to spend $6 trillion in the 2022 fiscal year, and for total spending to rise to $8.2 trillion by 2031. That would take the United States to its highest sustained levels of federal spending since World War II, while running deficits above $1.3 trillion through the next decade.
- Infrastructure plan: The budget outlines the president’s desired first year of investment in his American Jobs Plan, which seeks to fund improvements to roads, bridges, public transit and more with a total of $2.3 billion over eight years.
- Families plan: The budget also addresses the other major spending proposal Biden has already rolled out, his American Families Plan, aimed at bolstering the United States’ social safety net by expanding access to education, reducing the cost of child care and supporting women in the work force.
- Mandatory programs: As usual, mandatory spending on programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare make up a significant portion of the proposed budget. They are growing as America’s population ages.
- Discretionary spending: Funding for the individual budgets of the agencies and programs under the executive branch would reach around $1.5 trillion in 2022, a 16 percent increase from the previous budget.
- How Biden would pay for it: The president would largely fund his agenda by raising taxes on corporations and high earners, which would begin to shrink budget deficits in the 2030s. Administration officials have said tax increases would fully offset the jobs and families plans over the course of 15 years, which the budget request backs up. In the meantime, the budget deficit would remain above $1.3 trillion each year.
These are pretty conservative estimates: The economists Joseph Stiglitz and Nicholas Stern argue that the social cost of carbon is actually $100 per ton or even higher.
Metrics like these are typically used to calculate the proper price of a carbon tax, but they apply to infrastructure spending as well. Future generations will look back at this one and wonder why we did not do everything in our power to reduce pollution from our cars, our stoves, our air-conditioning units and more — why we were unwilling to pay a short-term price for the long-term welfare of the species.
According to one estimate, unchecked climate change could cost the United States around 10.5 percent of G.D.P. by the end of the century, but Congress can reduce these costs by helping to speed the transition to a green economy. It may cost a lot up front to build infrastructure for electric vehicles and wind power, but the dividends for future generations will be enormous.
Short-term concerns about inflation or the size of the deficit ought to seem petty compared with the long-term moral imperative to act on climate change. The only way for Congress to act on climate is to spend as much as possible, as soon as possible.
Spending money can be controversial, but in this case it shouldn’t be. Even if the Democrats do not raise a cent of new revenue, the climate provisions in the larger infrastructure bill will more than pay for themselves over time. Mr. Biden and centrists in Congress may value a short-term bipartisan win, but given the stakes of the crisis ahead of us, a bite-size infrastructure bill would be too small to afford.
Jake Bittle is a freelance reporter who is writing a book about climate migration.
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