U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-7) held a virtual town hall through Zoom Wednesday evening. He was joined by Kai Mateo, Federal Climate Campaign Manager of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, Marcus Sibley, Environmental and Climate Justice Chair of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, and Christian Estevez, Executive Vice President of CWA Local 1037. The town hall was to discuss the Build Back Better agenda being advanced by the Biden Administration where $3.5 trillion legislation is under consideration by the Congress.
Malinowski championed the Build Back Better plan asserting that, nationwide, millions of jobs would be created focusing on environmental efforts, addressing climate change, community improvement, clean energy, and dealing with toxic industrial sites. The bill is set to be voted on by the end of the month.
Mateo referenced the impacts of Hurricane Ida on New Jersey as a product of climate change. The BBB would, in theory, produce a green energy economy by the 2030s. That is, of course, provided that future leadership did not derail that goal.
“We are pushing to make this legislation as aggressive as possible to meet the needs of this moment,” Mateo said, saying the country needed a fully green economy by 2035, ranging from areas such as transportation, indoor safety, and clean drinking water infrastructure.
Sibley said that the NAACP was, “Eager to support healing historic harms,” referring to the Building Back Better agenda as a “once in a generation opportunity to invest in traditionally disadvantaged communities.” Sibley said it was critical to create “pipelines” to the middle class for communities of people of color, particularly those who have suffered the full brunt of pollution and climate-related impacts. The Newark water crisis was doubtless in mind when Sibley charged that changes must affect improvements so “families are no longer fearful of what flows from their faucets.” Acknowledging that there was an opportunity for the black community to have some justice brought its way, Sibley said, “…we need specificity in the language… Our community has been used to get money, but it doesn’t trickle back to the streets where people really need it. We all have a responsibility to make sure our officials are doing all they can for those who are most exploited and most vulnerable.”
When Malinowski spoke, he addressed the impact of Tropical Storm Ida and described the aftermath of the storm as “an important moment to have this conversation in Central Jersey because climate change just got real again for all of us. The storm that devastated parts of our state was a hurricane that hit Louisiana 1000 miles away–yet in many parts of New Jersey, the damage is as great or greater than what we suffered during Sandy and Irene and those which hit New Jersey directly.”
The skepticism, he believes, is on the decline and that labels “ought not to divide us. The cost is family after family dealing with feet of water in their house, ruined property, worrying—that’s climate change, it’s something very real. Wherever you may live, Americans may be waking up to the fact that this is something we have to deal with.”
The budget reconciliation represents a potential $3.5 trillion in spending investments and Malinowski urged Americans to stand out in the forefront of a new green economy, not only for the climate benefits, but also for the return on the investment. He said he favors market based strategies as the most efficient and effective ways of bringing about change, where the public and private sectors can work together towards a common goal.
In short, the Congressman said, while the price tag may seem steep now, the costs of not doing anything would be infinitely higher. “We are trying to address the effects and the root causes [of climate change] by investing in the infrastructure to protect us, to keep storm water from entering rivers, we have a lot of long overdue projects in New Jersey like controlling flooding. That’s pretty bipartisan. Everyone’s district is affected by flooding, it doesn’t matter what party you belong to.”
Either way, investment will come either in the form of climate effect mitigation—a route which is fundamentally unsustainable, expensive, and futile—or trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and embrace new technologies, innovations, and modernize industries. The companion bill, the bipartisan infrastructure bill where U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5) seized headlines by demanding a vote on before the budget reconciliation, goes hand-in-hand with the reconciliation. With the House in Democratic hands and the Senate split 50-50 with Democrat Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote, Malinowski believes that it is now or never. “We have an opportunity this year. There are a lot of things I want to do in Congress that are hard, this is hard but possible… The bipartisan bill is good, it’s not perfect, but it is good and invests tens of billions into climate resilience, flood control, strengthening infrastructure to withstand climate change… I’m making the point that resilience alone is resignation.”
The midterm elections are but a year away and the congressman said he could not be certain the Congress would stay favorable, reemphasizing in his soft-spoken way that this bill needs to get done and get done soon. “This is a year when all America is thinking about this issue, recognizing climate change is here… Next year is an election year, who knows who will be in the congress? This is a make-or-break moment for climate, a code red moment for those of us who want to get something practical done.”
When President Joe Biden visited New Jersey on Tuesday, Malinowski said he spoke to him about a treatment plant in Bridgewater, demonstrating the resilience-as-a-losing-investment situation. The plant, he said, was protected with a barrier and systems to withstand a “100-year flood” which was, three years ago, upgraded to withstand a “500 year flood”. However, when Ida struck, the walls were nearly overcome. Within three years, the “500-year flood” had come. For the moment, the defenses held, but the problem was apparent.
The effects, he said, were generally understood on both sides of the spectrum. “Where things get more controversial are the root causes, we gotta deal with that. Things will get worse if we don’t. All of the engineering we are doing to protect against flooding will be useless in 10 or 20 years if temperatures continue to rise… Corporate America is bearing the cost as well and they want to know if they make big investments now in sustainability that it’ll pay off down the road.”
The United States is not the sole producer of greenhouse gas by any means. Countries like China and India, industrial giants, produce enormous quantities of greenhouse gases, and this highlights the necessity of reclaiming American supply. Several raw materials used for production of clean energy equipment are currently made in China, which presents both ethical and economic problems. Reclaiming those supplies would also spur job growth in the United States—and job growth is a key principle both Biden and Malinowski are using to pitch the agenda. “It’ll create jobs with massive improvements to the electrical grid in the United States—those are great jobs, investments in weatherizing homes, marine infrastructure, electric car charging stations, building windmills off shores and on mountains, all of this. We will try to move supply chains back to the US, some of these are linked to places in China like raw materials for solar power come from slave labor. We can’t trade off human rights for clean energy, so we want to move these supply chains back to the US—which means more jobs.”
A numbers game would demonstrate the necessity to move on the Build Back Better agenda, according to Malinowski. “Most insurance companies already don’t offer flood insurance for homeowners. That’s extra. So just for that industry alone which is about making predictions, I think we are close to a point where this is unsustainable. The flip side is, while the action we take costs some money up front, including research and development, this will also pay off economically because the world is moving towards clean energy and American genius can put us in the forefront of that transformation.”
Further to the point of Chinese manufacturing and competition, Malinowski was also clear that he saw the future of clean energy as a serious struggle between the United States and China, the world’s #2 economy. Whoever can develop the competitive edge will call the shots and dominate the future global green energy markets. “Do you want China to win this race or America? This is a race. The Chinese Communist Party is investing three times as much money as we are in clean energy research—and it ain’t because the communists love trees, it’s because they want to beat us.”
Malinowski said that the Congress can take action against competitor nations at the borders, imposing a “carbon tax for inputs” such as aluminum and steel coming in from China, assessing a fee which would reflect the “climate cost” of the given product. “There are a lot of people on the right who say we can’t solve [climate change] without China and India held accountable. I agree and this actually takes that accountability seriously and raises revenue.”
The reconciliation bill, he said, is not subject to the threat of a filibuster, but policy cannot be made with it. Nevertheless, there are ways to achieve President Biden’s goal of a 100% clean energy generation goal by 2035 through the crafting of clean electric bill plans. The congressman described a system where utility companies would be held to a generation standard. Failure to meet it would result in fees, where exceeding them would earn them payments. He acknowledged that the payments might be greater than the fees, but that would also mean that clean energy was moving in the right direction.
Taxpayers would also see their money saved with the ending of fossil fuel subsidies. “This bill will touch every aspect of life in the United States,” Malinowski said.
The congressman was asked to address the Penn East Pipeline, a matter close to home. He said that the congress was attempting to kill the pipeline with a “death by a thousand cuts” and lamented the fact that, “The impact is felt by landowners who have invested for generations in building on our pristine land, then to be told this pipe would be put across their land and never be the same—and here’s $45,000 for the loss.”
Describing it as “a rotten deal for the people of this state,” Malinowski said that while natural gas should not be abolished at this time, there should not be an “artificial expansion” of fossil fuel delivery in the Garden State. “I realized that this is not the market in any classical sense driving this development.”
The congressman is optimistic, however, that the new FERC and commissioners chosen by Biden will provide a chance to look again at approving the pipeline.
Counties and municipalities will benefit from the reconciliation most immediately in the form of resilience upgrades, according to the congressman. Citing the flooding in Cranford and Millburn, he said residents there know the river overflows with every storm. He also mentioned how a “pretty little stream” in his backyard turned into a river, which dumped water into his basement and garage thanks to Ida. He described an “incredibly frustrating” situation where the Army Corps of Engineers had been “in and out” over the last 20 years talking about mitigation and flow management methods, but then ultimately left. He said that he was able to compel them to re-engage and accelerate their efforts in the end. For urban communities, as a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he said he would push for “zero-emissions buses in our urban areas where kids are breathing in fumes. We should spur the acquisition of those zero emission buses… A lot of the investments in flood control and management are also the responsibility of my committee, I’m on the water subcommittee so I’ve been very focused on that in the last few years.”
As he addressed the virtual gathering of predominantly environmental activists, he assured them that while he had their interests in mind in Washington DC, people should not ease up the pressure on their elected leaders. “You need to be on our case for the next month, every day to tell us to pass these bills. It is our best opportunity in forever to actually do something about this warming planet and all the costs we are suffering as a result.”