The bipartisan infrastructure deal signed this week provides new money for climate resilience unprecedented in United States history: tens of billions of dollars to protect against flooding, reduce damage from forest fires, develop new sources of drinking water in drought-stricken areas, and even for relocating entire communities away from endangered places.
But the bill is noteworthy for another reason. For the first time, both parties have recognized – through their actions, if not their words – that the United States is unprepared for the worsening effects of climate change and needs a tremendous and urgent infusion of money and effort to prepare.
“It is difficult to reject solutions to the crises your constituents are suffering from,” said Shalini Vajjhala, a former Obama administration official who now advises cities on preparing for climate threats. And as these threats become more common and widespread, “now every voter is for climate resilience”.
When it comes to addressing the consequences of planet warming, no money seems too much and bipartisan consensus is easy to find. A deal between Republicans and Democrats to reduce the emissions that cause planet warming is elusive as Republicans are largely opposed to restricting the use of fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal.
As a result, the Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration are aiming to bundle more aggressive climate action into a separate budget that the Democrats hope to pass without a Republican vote.
The infrastructure bill, which could be passed in the Senate this week, is still encountering uncertainty in the House of Representatives, where progressives speak out against, among other things, provisions on the financing of natural gas and nuclear power plants. But money to protect communities from sea level rise and extreme weather conditions has few opponents.
“The climate crisis affects both red states and blue states alike,” said Senator Tom Carper, Democrat of Delaware and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, in a statement. Many of his Republican counterparts, he added, “have seen firsthand how disastrous the consequences can be if we don’t invest in resilience.”
The bill would also fundamentally change the country’s approach to climate change preparedness.
Until recently, federal disaster policy focused on spending money to rebuild what was lost after a storm, forest fire, or other disaster.
But a series of extremely devastating events – including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017, record breaking California wildfires, this year’s winter storm in Texas, and the drought that is now sweeping the west – have challenged that logic and the need for a better one Schutzes demonstrates homes, neighborhoods and facilities before disasters happen.
The Infrastructure Act reflects this change in different ways. Some of the money would overload existing programs that experts say are not of the size to meet the growing threat.
For example, the Army Corps of Engineers would receive an additional $ 11.6 billion in construction grants for projects such as flood control 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. This program would more than triple its annual budget to $ 700 million.
A portion of this money is earmarked for homeowners in areas deemed particularly vulnerable due to socio-economic factors, including the home of racial minorities. FEMA has been criticized for providing less money to black survivors of the disaster than white survivors, even if they suffer similar losses.
“This is a turning point,” said Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, of the determination to focus on neighborhoods at risk.
FEMA would also receive 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 is currently spending.
The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water supplies in the west, 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. Those numbers would 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 use it for new uses like irrigation to make available.
Other resources in the legislation would go to new programs.
The bill would provide the Department of Agriculture with $ 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.
“This is a great first step,” said Kimiko Barrett, researcher and policy analyst at Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit, nonprofit, forest fire policy organization in Montana. “We have to start by creating communities that are adapted to living with this increasing risk.”
Other programs would not only protect homes and facilities against disasters, they would move them out of harm’s way.
The Department of Transportation would receive nearly $ 9 billion for a program to help states prepare highways for the effects of climate change – including relocating roads from flood-prone areas. The Environmental Protection Agency would pay communities to lay drinking water pipes and treatment plants that are at risk from flooding or other extreme weather conditions.
Legislation would provide the means to move entire communities. The bill would provide 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, would be used for “community relocation” to help Indigenous Americans evacuate dangerous areas.
“The impact and cost are so great that they can no longer be ignored,” said Forbes Tompkins, who leads the Pew Charitable Trusts flood prevention program. “We could look back and say this was the moment, this was the year that resilience became a national priority.”
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