In the Infrastructure Bill, a Recognition: Climate Change Is a Crisis
The bipartisan infrastructure deal reached this week provides additional money for climate resilience unprecedented in US history: tens of billions of dollars to protect against flooding, reduce damage from forest fires, develop new sources of drinking water in drought-prone areas and even displace remote communities from vulnerable places.
But the bill is remarkable for another reason. For the first time, both sides have recognized – by their actions, if not their words – that the United States is unprepared for the worsening effects of climate change and needs a huge and urgent infusion of money. and effort to prepare.
“It is difficult to oppose solutions to the crises facing your constituents,” said Shalini Vajjhala, a former Obama administration official who now advises cities on preparing for climate threats. And as these threats become more frequent and pervasive, “the riding for climate resilience is now everyone.”
When it comes to dealing with the consequences of global warming, no amount of money seems to be too much, and bipartisan consensus is easy to find. The deal between Republicans and Democrats to cut emissions that cause global warming is more elusive, as Republicans are largely reluctant to limit the use of fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal.
As a result, Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration aim to incorporate more aggressive climate action into a separate budget bill, which Democrats hope to pass even without Republican votes.
The infrastructure bill, which could be passed in the Senate this week, still faces uncertainty in the House, where progressives oppose provisions to finance natural gas and nuclear power plants, among others. But money to protect communities from rising sea levels and extreme weather has few opponents.
“The climate crisis is affecting both the red states and the blue states,” said Senator Tom Carper, Democrat of Delaware and chair of the environment and public works committee, in a statement. Many of his Republican colleagues, he added, “have seen firsthand how dire the consequences can be if we don’t invest in resilience.”
The bill would also fundamentally transform the country’s approach to preparing for climate change.
Until recently, federal disaster policy has focused on spending money after a storm, wildfire, or other calamity, to rebuild what has been lost.
But a series of extremely destructive events – including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017, record-breaking wildfires in California, this year’s winter storm in Texas, and the current drought in the West – have postponed questioned this logic, demonstrating the need to better protect homes, neighborhoods and facilities before disasters strike.
The infrastructure bill reflects this change in different ways. Some of the money would go into programs that already exist, but which experts say are not on the scale to deal with the growing threat.
For example, the Army Corps of Engineers would get an additional $ 11.6 billion in construction funds for projects such as flood control and river dredging. That’s more than four times the amount Congress gave the Corps last year for construction.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has its own program to reduce flood damage, by purchasing or raising homes threatened by flooding. This program would see its annual budget more than triple, to reach 700 million dollars.
Part of this money is intended for owners of areas considered particularly vulnerable due to socio-economic factors, including sheltering racial minorities. FEMA has been criticized for providing less money to black disaster survivors than to white survivors, even when they suffer similar losses.
“This is a game-changer,” said Rob Moore, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, of the provision to focus on vulnerable neighborhoods.
FEMA would also get an additional $ 1 billion for a grant program to protect communities from all types of disasters, and an additional $ 733 million to make dams safer.
Other programs would see even more dramatic increases. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would receive nearly $ 100 million a year to help restore coastal habitats and protect coastal communities – five times what the program currently spends.
The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water supplies in the West, now receives $ 20 million a year from Congress for desalination projects, which remove minerals and salts from seawater to create l freshwater, and an additional $ 65 million for water recycling. Those numbers would skyrocket: the bill includes $ 250 billion for desalination over five years and $ 1 billion for water recycling and reuse, the process of treating wastewater to make it available for new uses. such as irrigation.
Other funds provided for in the act would be devoted to new programs.
The bill would give the Department of Agriculture $ 500 million for what it calls “forest fire defense grants to communities at risk” – money that could help people make changes. to their homes or landscape, for example, to make them less vulnerable to fires.
“This is a great first step,” said Kimiko Barrett, researcher and policy analyst at Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit forest fire policy consultancy in Montana. “We need to start looking to create suitable communities to live with this growing risk. “
Other programs would involve not only fortifying homes and facilities against disasters, but also securing them.
The Department of Transportation would get nearly $ 9 billion for a program designed to help states prepare highways for the effects of climate change, including moving roads out of flood-prone areas. The Environmental Protection Agency would pay for communities to move drinking water pipes and treatment facilities at risk of flooding or other extreme weather conditions.
Funding provided by law would be available to displace entire communities. The bill would provide $ 216 million to the Office of Indian Affairs for resilience and climate change adaptation of tribal nations, which have been disproportionately affected by climate change. More than half of that money, $ 130 million, would go to “community relocation” – helping Native Americans to leave dangerous areas.
“The impacts and costs are so great that it’s just impossible to ignore them,” said Forbes Tompkins, who leads the Communities Flood Preparedness Program at Pew Charitable Trusts. “We could look back and say, this was the time, this was the year, that made resilience a national priority.”
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