Infrastructure bill makes first major US investment in climate resilience

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WASHINGTON – The $ 1 trillion infrastructure draft now being carried to President Biden’s desk contains the largest amount of money ever spent by the United States to prepare the nation for the devastating effects of climate change.

The $ 47 billion in climate resilience bill is set to help communities prepare for the new age of extreme fires, floods, storms, and droughts that scientists say are made worse by man-made climate change.

The money is the clearest signal from the federal government to date that the economic damage to a warming planet has already arrived. Their approval by Congress with bipartisan support reflects an implicit recognition of this fact by at least some Republicans, although many of the party’s leaders still question or deny the established science of man-made climate change.

“It’s a big deal and we will build our resilience to the next storm, drought, forest fires and hurricanes that show a red blink code for America and the world,” Biden said in a speech in late October.

But still pending on Capitol Hill is a second, far larger, spending bill of $ 555 billion to seek to mitigate climate change by reducing carbon pollution, trapping heat, and driving up global temperatures .

House Democratic leaders were on the verge of putting this bill to the vote on Friday but ultimately had to abandon the plans because they did not have enough support within their own faction to pass it. They hope to try a vote before Thanksgiving.

“The Infrastructure Bill contains many good things that will help us prepare for climate change, but this package has very little impact on emissions and so will not prevent climate change,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, one to the most prominent advocates of climate protection in Congress.

“It is important that we can get significant bipartisan action that recognizes that climate change is real and that we need to protect our infrastructure from its effects,” said Whitehouse. “But it is not enough to just carry out repairs. We have to prevent the worst scenarios. “

Spending is well below the level of government action that scientific reports have suggested is needed to prevent or prepare for the worst effects of climate change.

While the infrastructure bill would spend $ 47 billion to prepare the country for worsening floods, fires, and storms, the federal government’s 2018 National Climate Assessment estimated that adaptation to climate change would end up being “tens to hundreds of billions of dollars a year “Could cost.

Still, experts and lawmakers are calling the level of spending on “climate resilience” in the infrastructure bill historic, especially after four years of former President Donald J. Trump denying the established science of climate change, decimating environmental regulations, and pulling the United States out of the country the Paris Climate Agreement.

“That is far more than anything we could achieve under the Obama administration,” said Alice Hill, who oversaw climate risk planning in the National Security Council during Barack Obama’s presidency. “We have made tremendous progress.”

The spending on climate resilience in the Infrastructure Bill is notable for something seldom achieved in congressional debates on climate policy: bipartisan support.

A handful of Republicans who voted for the Infrastructure Bill were heavily involved in framing the climate resilience legislation, spurred on by the realization that global warming is already hurting their voters.

Louisiana Republican Senator Bill Cassidy who helped shape climate resilience legislation will see new money pouring into his state as the law passes. In September, Hurricane Ida in Louisiana left at least 82 dead and millions without electricity after a storm that scientists say gave a clear picture of the havoc climate change will continue to wreak.

Mr. Cassidy called the bill “the largest investment in infrastructure and coastal resilience in Louisiana’s history.”

“For example, there are people who live in Lexington Parish, which was flooded in 2016, and their lives – everything in their lives has been destroyed,” he said. “The pictures of their children, the wedding dress they got married in, the house they lived in that has never been flooded – the fact that we help our American compatriots avoid that gives me an incredible feeling of Satisfaction.”

Billions of dollars in federal funding will be poured into other communities across the country that are affected by the extreme weather events or expect to become more frequent and more destructive as a result of climate change.

These climate effects are already being felt in every corner of the United States.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there were 22 climate disasters in the United States in 2020, each costing at least $ 1 billion, breaking the previous record of 16 events in 2017 and 2011.

This record should be broken again this year. This summer, the hottest on record in the country, record forest fires devastated large parts of California and a deadly heatwave swept the Pacific Northwest. Once in 200 years dozens of people were killed in flash floods in New York and New Jersey.

“It’s rare that you ever have the financial resources – financial resources at all – to resilience,” said Al Leonard, urban planner for Fair Bluff, a small town in eastern North Carolina that is recovering from repeated flooding. “When federal or state money becomes available, it really is manna from heaven.”

The measure will provide a cash injection for existing programs designed to help combat the effects of climate change.

For example, the Army Corps of Engineers will receive an additional $ 11.6 billion in construction funds for projects such as flood protection and river dredging. That’s more than four times the amount Congress gave the Corps to build last year.

The Federal Emergency Call Center has its own program to reduce flood damage by buying or adding additional floors to houses at risk of flooding. The annual budget for this program will more than triple to $ 700 million, along with new funding for similar programs.

In particular, one community that may be eligible for flood prevention: Three Forks, Montana, which is located at the confluence of the Jefferson, Gallatin and Madison Rivers and is at significant risk of flooding according to new FEMA flood maps.

Earlier this year, city officials and mayors drew up a plan to prevent such flooding by channeling high water into a dry river canal. The city applied for federal funding but didn’t get it, said Patricia Hernandez, the director of Headwaters Economics, a non-partisan research organization based in Montana that studies the financial implications of climate change.

“Now, with that bill, they’ll probably get that money,” Ms. Hernandez said. “And your flood risk reduction project will also help make housing affordable and profitable in the region.”

The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the western water supply, now receives $ 20 million annually from Congress for desalination projects that remove minerals and salts from seawater to create freshwater, and an additional $ 65 million for water recycling. With the passage of the bill, those numbers will skyrocket: the bill provides $ 250 million for desalination over five years and $ 1 billion for water recycling and reuse, the process of treating wastewater to make it for to make new uses such as irrigation available.

Further funding is planned for new approaches. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will receive $ 492 million for inland and coastal flood mapping and forecasting, including “next generation water modeling activities.” NOAA would also receive $ 50 million to predict, model, and predict forest fires.

The Department of Agriculture is well on its way to raising $ 500 million for so-called “Wildfire Defense Grants for Communities at Risk” – money that could help people make changes to their homes or landscapes to make them less prone to fire, for example do.

The bill also provides the Bureau of Indian Affairs with $ 216 million in climate resilience and adaptation for indigenous nations disproportionately affected by climate change. More than half of that money, $ 130 million, is said to be used for “community resettlement” – to remove groups of Indigenous Americans from vulnerable areas.

Also under the plan, the Department of Transportation will send money to states to relocate highways from flood-prone areas, and the Environmental Protection Agency will pay communities to relocate drinking water infrastructure that is at risk from flooding or other extreme weather conditions.

Climate experts warn against viewing all of these expenses as just a down payment; Without billions of dollars in extra money and aggressive measures to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the cost of adapting to the new realities of global warming will only increase in the years to come.

“Fifty billion dollars in resilience is both transformative and utterly inadequate,” said Shalini Vajjhala, executive director of the San Diego Regional Policy & Innovation Center, a nonprofit affiliated with the Brookings Institution.

“If you compare the total to some of the largest resilient infrastructure projects planned in the US, it is tiny,” said Ms. Vajjhala. “This is progress, not perfection.”

Emily Cochrane Reporting contributed.


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