As Congress pays out more than 36 billion dollars in disaster relief, the General Accounting Office recommends that the federal government find ways to minimize the economic impacts of climate change. President Obama started moving in that direction when he signed an executive order requiring infrastructure be designed to survive flooding and other consequences of climate change. Obama’s order was never finalized, and President Trump issued an executive order of his own that pretty much undid it. So what’s the danger if infrastructure policies do not consider the risks that are coming with climate change?
Daniel Kreeger is the executive director of the Association of Climate Change Officers, which helps businesses, industries and others plan for climate change. He says we built infrastructure, like highways and sewers, based on the weather we’ve had over the last century. But global warming is changing the rules.
“We have a rapidly evolving, challenging landscape that we’re going to have to adapt to. And these three hurricanes are a perfect example. If you look at Harvey, the question we should be asking is why did 50 inches of rain turn into 10, 15 and 20 feet of flood in certain parts of Houston? There were reports from multiple agencies at different levels of government that said we have a design problem here. And yet, because we didn’t have the right policy mandating either new design or an overhaul of existing design to address that issue, we had an infrastructure failure and we should be very clear about that. What happened in Houston was an infrastructure design failure. It was a hurricane, but it didn’t need to be as bad as it was.”
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Kreeger says that President Obama’s policies meant government agencies like FEMA and HUD started to dole out money intelligently, to projects that were accounting for climate risk in their design. FEMA mandated that local and state governments had to factor climate change into their hazard mitigation plans in order to be eligible for FEMA funding. Consequently, policy began influencing behavior. But, Kreeger says, time ran out before there could have been more of an impact.
“The current administration came in and just pretty much wiped out anything that had President Obama’s fingerprints on it. But the irony of it is that those three storms coming have now put them under a microscope. And Congress is now going to have to focus very intently because it’s writing the check. All of a sudden they’re sitting with three storms, each of which has billions of dollars in damage. Congress is not equipped to write $200 billion checks like this on a regular basis. And they’re going to have to make sure that it isn’t wasted because if we have to rebuild five minutes after we built the first time, that’s not going to sit well with anybody.”
But the issue here isn’t just sensible investment of dollars. It’s also public health and national security. The Department of Homeland Security identifies 16 critical infrastructure sectors essential to the nation’s security and prosperity. Energy and water are at the heart of them.
“You cannot have civilization without energy and water, period. And so when the current administration moves in the direction of ensuring that our infrastructure is not going to adequately address these issues in order to ensure that we have the energy and the water that we need, we are going to fail.”
At a press conference in late August, President Trump said it took one state 17 years to get all the permits needed to build a highway. He unfurled what looked like a Biblical scroll, but was actually a flow-chart outlining the regulatory process for the highway. Kreeger says Trump’s not wrong when he says that the complexity of the process is an issue needs to be addressed, but there needs to be a happy medium.
“We need to make sure that when we’re spending dollars on infrastructure, we’re spending them intelligently. We need to make sure that the process is reasonable. Unfortunately, these systems are really complicated. We are going to have to redesign how big urban centers function in particular. Well it takes 50 years to rebuild the city and re-envision it, especially if it’s been overdeveloped. At some point, we’re going to have to get our arms around how we balance being more efficient with having intelligent design.”