WASHINGTON. The $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill sent to President Joe Biden includes the largest amount of money the United States has ever spent preparing the country to withstand the devastating effects of climate change.
The $ 47 billion in “climate resilience” bill is intended to help communities prepare for a new era of extreme fires, floods, storms and droughts, which scientists say are exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change.
Money is the clearest signal from the federal government that the economic damage from global warming has already begun. Its bipartisan congressional endorsement reflects an implicit recognition of this fact by at least some Republicans, even though many party leaders still question or deny the established science of human-induced climate change.
“This is a big deal and we will build our resilience to the next storm, drought, wildfires and hurricanes that indicate the blinking red code for America and the world,” Biden said in a speech at the end of October.
But still in limbo on Capitol Hill is a second, much larger expense account, which has poured $ 555 trillion to mitigate the effects of climate change by reducing carbon dioxide pollution, trapping heat and helping to raise global temperatures.
Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives on Friday came to the peak of putting the bill to a vote, but were ultimately forced to abandon the plans because they did not have enough support in their own assembly to pass it. They hope to try to vote before Thanksgiving.
“There are many good things in the infrastructure bill that will help us prepare for climate shocks, but this package has very little effect on emissions and therefore does not prevent climate shocks,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, MD, one of the most famous climate change fighters in Congress.
“It’s important that we were able to take a significant bipartisan measure that recognizes that climate change was real and we need to protect our infrastructure from its impacts,” Whitehouse said. “But repairs alone are not enough. We need to prevent worst-case scenarios. ”
Spending falls far short of the levels of government action that it has concluded is needed in scientific reports to prevent or prepare for the worst impacts of climate change.
While the infrastructure bill will spend $ 47 billion to prepare the country for worsening floods, fires and storms, in 2018 the federal government’s National Climate Assessment estimated that climate change adaptation could ultimately cost “tens to hundreds of billions of dollars. dollars a year “.
Nonetheless, experts and lawmakers have called the level of spending on “climate resilience” in the infrastructure bill historic, especially after four years in which former President Donald Trump denied the established science of climate change, destroyed environmental regulations and withdrew the United States from Parisian climatic chord.
“This is far beyond anything we could get under the Obama administration,” said Alice Hill, who oversaw climate risk planning at the National Security Council when Barack Obama was president. “We’ve made tremendous progress.”
The cost of climate resilience in the infrastructure bill is notable for something rarely achieved in congressional climate policy debates: bipartisan support.
A handful of Republicans who voted in favor of the infrastructure bill have been active in drafting climate resilience clauses, fueled by the recognition that global warming is already harming their constituencies.
Senator Bill Cassidy, Louisiana, who helped write climate resilience clauses, will see more money flow into his state with the passage of the bill. In September, Hurricane Ida left at least 82 dead and millions of people without electricity in Louisiana in a hurricane that scientists say provided a clear picture of the devastation that climate change will continue to wreak.
Cassidy called the bill “the largest investment in coastal infrastructure and resilience in Louisiana history.”
“For example, in 2016 there are people in Lexington County whose lives have been destroyed,” he said. “The pictures of their children, the wedding dress in which they got married, the house they lived in that has never been flooded before — the fact that we are helping our fellow Americans avoid it gives me an incredible sense of satisfaction.”
Billions of dollars in federal funds will begin to flow to other communities across the country that have been or expect to be affected by extreme weather events that scientists say are becoming more frequent and destructive due to climate change.
These climatic impacts are already being felt throughout 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 will be broken again this year. This summer, the hottest on record in the country, saw record wildfires ravaging vast swaths of California, and a deadly heat burned in the Pacific Northwest. Flash floods, occurring once every 200 years, have claimed the lives of dozens of people in New York and New Jersey.
“It’s rare that you ever have the financial resources – any financial resources – for sustainability,” said Al Leonard, urban planner for Fair Bluff, a small eastern North Carolina town struggling to recover from recurring floods. “When some federal or state money comes along, it’s really manna from heaven.”
The move will fund existing programs to help cope with the effects of climate change.
For example, the Army Corps of Engineers is to receive 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 Hull last year for construction.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has its own flood damage mitigation program by purchasing or raising flood-prone homes. 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 such flood prevention funding is Three Forks, Montana, which is located at the confluence of the Jefferson, Gallatin and Madison Rivers and is at significant flood risk, according to new FEMA floodplain maps.
Earlier this year, the city administration and the mayor drew up a plan to prevent such floods by channeling flood waters into the bed of a dried-up river. The city applied for federal funds but did not receive them, said Patricia Hernandez, director of Headwaters Economics, an independent Montana-based research organization that studies the financial impact of climate change.
“Now, with this account, they will probably get this money,” Hernandez said. “And their flood risk reduction project will also contribute to housing affordability and the region’s economy.”
The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water supplies in the West, receives $ 20 million a year from Congress for desalination projects that remove minerals and salts from seawater to create fresh water, and another $ 65 million to reuse water. With the adoption of the law, these numbers will rise sharply; the bill includes $ 250 million for desalination over five years and $ 1 billion for water recycling and reuse, a wastewater treatment process to make it available for new applications such as irrigation.
Other funding is slated 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 will also receive $ 50 million for forest fire prediction, modeling and forecasting.
The Department of Agriculture is ready to receive $ 500 million in so-called “bushfire protection grants for at-risk groups” – money that can help people make changes to their homes or landscape, for example, to make them less vulnerable to fires.
The bill also provides $ 216 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for climate resilience and adaptation for tribal peoples disproportionately affected by climate change. More than half of that money, $ 130 million, will go towards “community relocation,” the relocation of Native American groups from vulnerable areas.
Also under the plan, the Department of Transportation will send money to the state to relocate highways from flood-prone areas, and the EPA will pay communities to relocate drinking water infrastructure at risk of floods or other extreme weather conditions.
Climate experts warn that all of these costs should be considered a down payment; In the absence of billions of dollars in additional money and aggressive action to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the cost of adapting to the new realities of global warming will only increase in the coming years.
“Fifty billion dollars in sustainability is transformation and not enough,” said Shalini Wajhala, executive director of the San Diego Center for Regional Policy and Innovation, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Brookings Institution.
“If you compare the total to some of the largest resilient infrastructure projects that are planned in the US, they are tiny,” Wajhala said. “This is progress, not perfection.”