Climate Resilience In The Infrastructure Bill: A First Step Toward Hope

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A new, if imperfect, pathway to zero emissions has emerged within the $1 trillion infrastructure bill now headed to US President Joe Biden’s desk. Sure, the bill has money for traditional bridges and roads and railways, but it also contains $47 billion designated for climate resilience. The objective is to better prepare the US for extreme fires, floods, storms, and droughts — tangible symbols of the current economic and social climate crisis havoc.

The Infrastructure and Investment Act is a chance to “turn the climate crisis into an opportunity,” the President said in a statement after House passage of the bill. “This bill will make historic and significant strides that take on the climate crisis. It will build out the first-ever national network of electric vehicle charging stations across the country. We will get America off the sidelines on manufacturing solar panels, wind farms, batteries, and electric vehicles to grow these supply chains.”

Alice Hill, who directed climate risk planning on the National Security Council while Barack Obama was President, acknowledged to the New York Times, “This greatly exceeds anything we were able to get under the Obama administration. We’ve made enormous progress.” Former President Obama made an appearance at COP26 on Monday — 5 years after the Paris agreement, which he helped negotiate, took effect.

The bill’s level of spending for climate resilience stands in stark contrast to the legislative direction of Biden’s predecessor. Donald J. Trump denied that the climate crisis was real or human-caused, dismantled environmental regulations, and withdrew the US from the Paris climate agreement.

Climate impacts are evident in every part of the US. NOAA put weather and climate disasters in historical context with a report issued in September:

  • 22 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters occurred across the US, shattering the previous annual record of 16 events, which occurred in 2017 and 2011.
  • The billion-dollar events of 2020 included a record 7 disasters linked to tropical cyclones, 13 to severe storms, 1 to drought, and 1 to wildfires.
  • The 22 events cost the nation a combined $95 billion in damages.
  • Adding the 2020 events to the record that began in 1980, the US has sustained 285 weather and climate disasters where the overall damage costs reached or exceeded $1 billion.
Record number of billion-dollar disasters struck the US in 2020 — infographic from NOAA

The summary of the Infrastructure and Investment Act says it helps to tackle the climate crisis by:

  • making the largest investment in clean energy transmission and EV infrastructure in history
  • electrifying thousands of school and transit buses across the country
  • creating a new Grid Deployment Authority to build a resilient, clean, 21st century electric grid

Funding will be provided to better prepare the country to address emissions and warming through investments in electric vehicle charging, water infrastructure, environmental remediation, and modernizing the nation’s electricity grid to allow it to carry renewable energy.

Let’s look to the climate resilience language within the bill to see what is actually included.

Electric Vehicle Adoption = Key Indicator of Climate Resilience

The US lags behind the Chinese EV market considerably, manufacturing thus far about only one-third their amount of EVs. The bill invests $7.5 billion to build out the first-ever national network of EV chargers in the US — a critical element to accelerate EV adoption and create domestic manufacturing jobs. The bill will provide funding for deployment of EV chargers along highway corridors to facilitate long-distance travel and within communities to provide convenient charging where people live, work, and shop. Federal funding will have a particular focus on rural, disadvantaged, and hard-to-reach communities.

And it’s not only personal transportation that will receive an electrification focus in the bill. Because school buses are a significant source of pollution, the legislation will deliver thousands of electric school buses nationwide, including in rural communities, helping school districts across the country to replace the current yellow school bus fleet with zero emission buses.

The legislation also invests $5 billion in zero emission and clean public transit buses and $2.5 billion for ferries. The goal is for these investments to drive demand for US-made batteries and vehicles, create jobs, and support domestic manufacturing. It will also remove diesel buses from some of the most vulnerable communities. More than 25 million children and thousands of bus drivers who breathe polluted air on their rides to and from school will find relief, as diesel air pollution is linked to asthma and other health problems.

Climate Resilience & Water Infrastructure

Millions of people in the US feel the effects of the climate crisis each year when their roads wash out, airport power goes down, or schools get flooded. However, people of color are more likely to live in areas most vulnerable to flooding and other climate change-related weather events. The legislation makes an investment of over $50 billion to protect against droughts, floods, and wildfires — in addition to a major investment in weatherization.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has its own program to reduce the damage from flooding, by buying or elevating homes at risk from floods; that program will see its annual budget more than triple, to $700 million, along with new funding for similar programs.

The bill also provides $216 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for climate resilience and adaptation for tribal nations, which have been disproportionately hurt by climate change. More than half of that money, $130 million, is to go toward “community relocation” — moving groups of Indigenous Americans away from vulnerable areas.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water supplies in the West, now gets $20 million a year from Congress for desalination projects, which remove minerals and salts from seawater to create fresh water, and another $65 million for water recycling.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will receive $492 million to map and forecast inland and coastal flooding, including “next-generation water modeling activities.” NOAA would also get $50 million to predict, model, and forecast wildfires.

The Department of Agriculture will receive $500 million for what it calls “wildfire defense grants to at-risk communities” — money that could help people implement changes to their homes or landscape, for example, to make them less vulnerable to fires.

The bill includes $250 million for desalination over five years, and $1 billion for water recycling and reuse — the process of treating waste water to make it available for new uses such as irrigation.

Environmental Remediation

In rural and urban communities around the US, hundreds of thousands of former industrial and energy sites are now idle and are sources of blight and pollution. 26% of Black Americans and 29% of Hispanic Americans live within 3 miles of a Superfund site, a higher percentage than for people in the US overall. Proximity to a Superfund site can lead to elevated levels of lead in children’s blood. The legislation invests $21 billion in environmental remediation, making the largest investment in US history to address legacy pollution that harms the public health of communities and neighborhoods. In doing so, it will advance economic and environmental justice.

The bill includes funds to clean up Superfund and brownfield sites, reclaim abandoned mine land, and cap orphaned gas wells.

Power Infrastructure Upgrades

As the recent Texas power outages demonstrated, the aging US electric grid needs urgent modernization. Way back in 2013, a Department of Energy study found that power outages cost the US economy up to $70 billion annually. The legislation’s roughly $65 billion investment includes the single largest investment in clean energy transmission in US history.

It upgrades power infrastructure, including by building thousands of miles of new, resilient transmission lines to facilitate the expansion of renewable energy. It creates a new Grid Deployment Authority, invests in research and development for advanced transmission and electricity distribution technologies, and promotes smart grid technologies that deliver flexibility and resilience. (Green advocates beware: Investments are directed to demonstration projects and research hubs for next generation technologies like advanced nuclear, carbon capture, and clean hydrogen.)

Final Thoughts

The far more controversial Build Back Better (BBB) spending bill of $555 billion attempts to mitigate the climate crisis by reducing the carbon dioxide pollution that is trapping heat and driving up global temperatures. The BBB will be the next area of intensive, across-the-aisle legislative negotiation.

“There’s a lot of good stuff in the infrastructure bill to help us prepare for climate upheaval, but that package does very little to affect emissions, and, therefore, won’t prevent climate upheaval,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D- RI). Calling the bipartisan measure “significant,” Whitehouse reminded us that the climate crisis “was real, and we need to protect our infrastructure against its impacts. But it’s not enough to just do repair work. We need to prevent the worse scenarios.”

The hope is to hold a BBB vote before Thanksgiving… with the rules procedure prerequisite in place to usher it to success.

Featured image retrieved from NOAA/public domain

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a Model Y as well as a Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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