Infrastructure Bill makes first major US investment in climate resilience

President Joe Biden making a speech following the US House passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill in the White House in Washington on Nov 6, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The US$1 trillion (S$1.35 trillion) infrastructure Bill headed to President Joe Biden's desk includes the largest amount of money ever spent by the United States to prepare the nation to withstand the devastating impacts of climate change.

The US$47 billion in the Bill designated for "climate resilience" is intended to help communities prepare for the new age of extreme fires, floods, storms and droughts that scientists say are worsened by human-caused climate change.

The money is the most explicit signal yet from the federal government that the economic damages of a warming planet have already arrived.

Its approval by Congress with bipartisan support reflects an implicit acknowledgement of that fact by at least some Republicans, even though many of the party's leaders still question or deny the established science of human-caused climate change.

"It's a big deal, and we'll build up our resilience for the next storm, drought, wildfires and hurricanes that indicate a blinking code red for America and the world," Mr Biden said in a speech in late October.

But still in limbo on Capitol Hill is a second, far larger spending Bill that is packed with US$555 billion intended to try to mitigate climate change by reducing the carbon dioxide pollution that is trapping heat and driving up global temperatures.

House Democratic leaders on Friday (Nov 5) came to the cusp of bringing that Bill to the floor for a vote but ultimately had to scrap the plans because they did not have enough support in their own caucus to pass it.

They hope to attempt a vote before Thanksgiving.

"There is 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, one of the most prominent champions of climate action in Congress.

"It's significant that we could get a significant bipartisan measure that recognised that climate change was real and we need to protect our infrastructure against its impacts," said the Democrat.

"But it's not enough to just do repair work. We need to prevent the worse scenarios."

The spending falls far short of the levels of government action that scientific reports have concluded is needed to either prevent or prepare for the worst impacts of climate change.

While the infrastructure Bill would spend US$47 billion to prepare the nation for worsening floods, fires and storms, in 2018, the federal government's National Climate Assessment estimated that adapting to climate change could ultimately cost "tens to hundreds of billions of dollars per year".

Still, experts and lawmakers call the level of spending for "climate resilience" in the infrastructure Bill historic, particularly after four years in which former president Donald Trump denied the established science of climate change, decimated environmental regulations and withdrew the US from the Paris climate accord.

"This greatly exceeds anything we were able to get under the Obama administration," said Ms Alice Hill, who oversaw planning for climate risks on the National Security Council while Mr Barack Obama was president.

"We've made enormous progress."

The climate resilience spending in the infrastructure Bill is remarkable for something rarely achieved in congressional debates over climate policy: bipartisan support.

A handful of Republicans who voted for the infrastructure Bill were heavily involved in crafting the climate resilience provisions, spurred on by a recognition that global warming is already harming their constituents.

Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, who helped write the climate resilience provisions, will see new money flow to his state with passage of the Bill.

In September, Hurricane Ida left at least 82 people dead and millions without power in Louisiana in the wake of a storm that scientists say offered a clear picture of the types of devastation that climate change will continue to wreak.

Mr Cassidy called the Bill "the largest investment in infrastructure and coastal resiliency in the history of Louisiana".

"There are people living in Lexington Parish, for example, flooded in 2016, whose lives - everything in their life was destroyed," he said.

"The pictures of their children, the wedding dress in which they married, the home in which they lived, which had never flooded before - the fact that we are helping our fellow Americans avoid that gives me an incredible sense of satisfaction."

A photo taken on Sept 1, 2021, showing an aerial view of Lafitte, Louisiana, after Hurricane Ida passed. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Billions of dollars in federal funds will begin flowing to other communities around the country that have been or expect to be hit by the extreme weather events that scientists say are growing more frequent and more destructive by climate change.

Those climate impacts are already being felt in every corner of the US.

There were 22 climate disasters that cost at least $1 billion each in the US in 2020, shattering the previous record of 16 events, which occurred in 2017 and 2011, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That record is on track to be broken again this year. This summer, the hottest on record in the nation, saw record wildfires devastate large swaths of California and a deadly heat wave bake the Pacific Northwest. Once-in-200-year flash floods killed dozens of people in New York and New Jersey.

"It's rare that you ever have the financial resources - any financial resources - for resilience," said Mr Al Leonard, town planner for Fair Bluff, a small town in eastern North Carolina struggling to recover from repeated floods. "When there's some federal money or state money that becomes available, it really is manna from heaven."

A photo taken on Aug 30, 2021, showing the Caldor fire as it pushes into the Echo Summit area in California. PHOTO: AFP

The measure will provide an injection of money for existing programmes designed to help address the effects of climate change.

For example, the Army Corps of Engineers is to receive an additional US$11.6 billion in construction funds for projects like flood control and river dredging. That is more than four times the amount Congress gave the Corps last year for construction.

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

Other funding is slated towards new approaches. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will receive US$492 million to map and forecast inland and coastal flooding, including "next-generation water modelling activities". It would also get US$50 million to predict, model and forecast wildfires.

The Department of Agriculture is on track to receive US$500 million for what it calls "wildfire defence grants to at-risk communities" - money that could help people make changes to their homes or landscape, for example, to make them less vulnerable to fires.

Climate experts caution that all that spending should just be seen as a down payment; absent billions of dollars of additional money and aggressive action to sharply reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the costs of adapting to the new realities of global warming will only climb in the coming years.

"Fifty billion dollars for resilience is both transformational and totally inadequate," said Ms Shalini Vajjhala, executive director of the San Diego Regional Policy and Innovation Centre, a non-profit associated with the Brookings Institution.

"If you compare the total to some of the largest resilient infrastructure projects being planned in the US, it's tiny," she said. "This is progress, not perfection."

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