White House slaps $1 trillion price tag on climate record

By Timothy Cama | 01/22/2024 01:10 PM EST

The administration is ignoring Republican criticism and focusing on motivating its base.

Vice President Kamala Harris.

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the COP28 climate summit on Dec. 2, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Kamran Jeebreili/AP

Vice President Kamala Harris is going big in her efforts to sell the administration’s climate change and environmental agenda, with a $1 trillion price tag.

In a series of recent appearances, Harris has used the figure to boast about her and President Joe Biden’s accomplishments, usually without going into the math that got her there.

It’s not the $2 trillion climate and social spending plan Biden promised in his 2020 campaign for office, which fell prey to legislative realties like a closely divided Senate.


But the number, which adds together a handful of tangentially related legislative victories, could help get some voters excited about voting to reelect Biden and Harris in a year when many of the administration’s supporters — particularly young people, who are more likely to care about climate change — are showing signs they might not show up to the polls.

Harris quoted the 13-figure total twice in speeches at the COP28 climate conference in December in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“Two years ago, President Joe Biden stood onstage at COP26 and made a declaration of ambition: The United States of America will once again be a global leader in the fight against the climate crisis,” she said.

“Since then, the United States has turned ambition into action. President Biden and I made the largest climate investment in the history of our country and, some have said, the world: roughly $1 trillion over the next 10 years.”

Harris repeated it later that day, saying she and Biden “invested roughly $1 trillion over the next 10 years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, boost climate resilience and support adaptation, and build a clean energy economy.”

And later in December, Harris gave a similar talking point to a campaign reception with clean energy company leaders in Washington, saying the administration was able to make “an historic investment of over $1 trillion” in clean energy and related fields.

The number stands out in part because it doesn’t align with one of the chief metrics observers have used to measure the administration’s climate agenda: $369 billion.

That’s the 10-year total cost, as originally estimated by the Congressional Budget Office, of the energy and climate provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, the landmark 2022 law that represents the United States’ largest investment in climate ever.

Nor is Harris using figures from higher estimates of the IRA’s clean energy and climate costs.

The House Joint Committee on Taxation put it at $515 billion in April 2023, while Goldman Sachs that same month said the number was closer to $1.2 trillion, citing forecasts of higher-than-expected uptake for the tax provisions.

Instead, Harris got to the total through addition, the White House said.

“When the VP references the roughly $1T historic climate investment, she is referencing all of the clean energy, resilience, environmental justice, and innovation funding that is part of our historic effort to address the climate crisis, increase resilience, advance environmental justice, and build a clean energy economy,” a White House spokesperson told E&E News.

Specifically, in addition to the IRA, the number includes: $54 billion from the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 that went toward manufacturing, research and development; more than $530 billion of new spending in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act; and funding increases the administration secured at EPA and the departments of Energy, Transportation and Commerce.

‘Administration has delivered’

While Republicans and opponents of the IRA use the big numbers from the JCT and Goldman Sachs to criticize the law as too expensive — and more costly than originally imagined — Harris is instead using the high price tag to boast.

The talking point should play well with supporters of the administration’s agenda.

Matthew Davis, vice president of federal policy at the League of Conservation Voters, argued that the $1 trillion total can be an effective way to show voters the administration cares.

“We definitely think that candidates running on clean energy and taking actions to limit the impacts of the climate crisis are going to see a benefit with voters across the board,” Davis said.

He added that it can be effective to “show folks across the country how they’re delivering on improving their communities, delivering them more money in their pockets in terms of affordable, efficient energy and benefits that come from those, and tackling the climate crisis — which people across the country have come to really have first-hand experiences with the impacts and better understand how serious they are.”

LCV’s advocacy arm, the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, endorsed Biden and Harris for reelection last year.

“There’s a lot of positive things to talk about that the administration has done, and these investments are certainly one of those pieces,” Davis said.

But climate advocates are going to be talking about a lot more than the top-line number when promoting the administration’s accomplishments.

“The Biden-Harris administration has delivered so much more than $1 trillion in investments,” he said. “It’s hard to capture what all of those add up to, and it’s hard to encapsulate the entirety of the work that they have done to help communities around the country.”

On the other hand, for young climate-conscious voters, the price tag might not be all it takes to get out to the polls.

“The Biden administration has definitely pushed the ball forward on climate in ways that previous presidents haven’t done. However, they need to finish the job,” said Stevie O’Hanlon, spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, a youth activist group.

“While they have made big strides forward with the IRA, with the American Climate Corps, we still are on track as a country to produce more fossil fuels than ever before by 2030,” they said, pointing to Biden’s approval of the Willow Project in Alaska and uncertainty over its ongoing consideration of CP2, a proposed liquefied natural gas export terminal in Louisiana.

“And if they want to be taken seriously by young people, the administration can’t be half in and half out on climate,” O’Hanlon said.

Sunrise didn’t endorse in the 2020 general election — it backed Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in their unsuccessful Democratic primary bids — but it did help mobilize voters. O’Hanlon said the group has ongoing discussions over potential actions in the 2024 race.

While Harris has been using the line more recently, her first mention of it appears to have been a February 2023 meeting at the White House with dozens of state governors as part of the National Governors Association’s annual meeting, when she spoke about climate as an area in which she and Biden had delivered on their promises.

“We calculate that, in addition to $370 billion that was part of the Inflation Reduction Act, overall we’re probably looking at about $1 trillion that will hit the streets of America to address this pressing issue,” she said.