Last week, as Congress considered a massive infrastructure package, Hurricane Ida barreled through major cities from Louisiana to Massachusetts, offering up the latest examples of how extreme weather can wreak havoc on subway stations, roadways and power lines.
One-quarter of residents in New Orleans still remain without power. Up north, some residents of New York City and New Jersey continued to sort through wreckage on Tuesday when President Biden visited and met with officials. Biden, Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, all Democrats, used the occasion to note the urgency of passing an infrastructure bill.
“In the span of just one week, New York City saw two once-in-a-century storms,” Schumer noted, referring also to Hurricane Henri, which drenched the Northeast on Aug. 22, setting a record for rainfall in New York that Ida then swiftly obliterated.
“This is not normal,” said Schumer. “That’s why we so urgently need, Mr. President, your big and bold Build Back Better plan.”
Biden hit the same notes even harder. “Climate change poses an existential threat to our lives, to our economy,” he said. “And the threat is here; it’s not going to get any better. The question: Can it get worse? We can stop it from getting worse. And when I talk about building back better — and Chuck is fighting for my program — our program — on the Hill — when I talk about building back better, I mean, you can’t build to what it was before this last storm. You’ve got to build better, so if the storm occurred again, there would be no damage.”
Environmental advocates and experts are unanimous in their support for the Build Back Better agenda, which is actually two bills: the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the U.S. Senate and the budget framework that passed both houses of Congress on party-line votes and which will have its details filled in during the reconciliation process.
The infrastructure bill includes measures for the United States to adapt to climate change and reduce climate pollution, such as investments in clean energy research, electricity grid modernization and funds for responding to future climate change-related natural disasters.
Environmentalists are pushing for the budget to incorporate initiatives that could reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and decrease the risk that future extreme weather events will cause problems like long-term blackouts. On Wednesday, 20 think tanks and environmental advocacy organizations, including the Center for American Progress and the National Wildlife Federation, sent a letter to members of Congress laying out their parameters for what a green infrastructure package must entail.
“There are a variety of pieces of what you might call natural infrastructure that are going to be supported in this program,” said Matthew Davis, senior director of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, one of the groups that signed the letter. For example, restoring wetlands would both suck up carbon in the atmosphere and help absorb heavy rains and storm surges, making it less likely that they flood power substations or subway tunnels.
There are also other examples of what Davis calls “hard infrastructure” investments that could help both combat climate change and adapt to it. Experts have long called for federal incentives for the local utilities that control the United States’ outdated electricity grid to improve transmission lines. That could help bring wind and solar power from remote locations, whether offshore or in the Great Plains, to coastal consumers. It could also make the grid more resilient to power outages.
“In California, for example, around wildfires, you saw lots of blackouts last summer, because utility companies were worried that their transmission line might spark wildfires,” explained Davis. “If you have more or better or improved lines that are less of a concern in that regard, you might see fewer blackouts related to wildfire risk.”
While outdoor transmission lines can be made less susceptible to heat, the safest solution — putting them underground — is expensive in rural areas. The California utility PG&E estimated that moving 10,000 miles of its 25,000 miles of wires in fire-prone areas would cost $15 billion to $20 billion.
Funding mass transit is another climate twofer, Davis said, since it could both decrease the oil burned in car engines if transit ridership increases, but also help transit systems prepare for and deal with future hurricanes and blizzards.
And then there are ideas to simply prepare for the more frequent events — heat waves and cold snaps, hurricanes and droughts — that are now inevitable. LCV and its allies want funding for sewer and stormwater pipe maintenance upgrades, so that the next time cities see record rainfall, the water doesn’t back up in basements.
The Biden budget proposal’s biggest plans to reduce carbon emissions, however, don’t have much to do with climate resilience or adaptation. Rather, they are efforts to stop relying on fossil fuels, including clean energy tax credits, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and charging oil and gas producers for leaking methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. Predictably, this has provoked resistance from the oil and gas industry. The American Petroleum Institute and an array of state-level fossil fuel trade associations sent a letter to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Tuesday expressing their objections to the methane fee. Pro-environment politicians such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, have alleged that the fossil fuel lobby is throwing its weight and money around to block the bill.
Resistance from fossil fuel companies isn’t the only obstacle Biden faces. Last week, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., whose vote is pivotal in the evenly divided upper chamber of Congress, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he thinks the spending proposal is too large.
But even if the bills do everything the administration hopes, they won’t necessarily prevent a replay of the scenes from last week. As Biden noted in his address in Queens on Tuesday, cutting down carbon emissions and adapting infrastructure to a warming world is about limiting future damage from climate change, but eliminating it altogether is impossible. How much global warming is averted will also depend as much on what other countries do.
It’s also worth noting that the amounts of money being spent on this infrastructure will be far short of the amounts that would be needed to guarantee a future free of power outages and flooded streets, if such a thing is even possible. Take the mass transit funding: Environmentalists hope to secure just $1 billion per year for mass transit nationally, less than half of what New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority spends digging just a mile of subway tunnel.
Ultimately, power lines have been getting knocked down for as long as they have been strung between poles. With climate change, they’re going to get knocked down more often, unless and until we put them underground. As this summer shows, we can’t control the weather, but we can control how we prepare for it.
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