This is the twenty-fourth in our series, “The ABCs of the AJP.”
In 2020 alone, the United States suffered 22 separate extreme weather and climate-related disasters that each caused at least $1 billion in damages, for a total of more than $100 billion in losses. That staggering statistic is not an anomaly, as climate change continues to result in more and more extreme weather events every year. For example, the Texas freeze that rocked the state earlier this year and killed more than one hundred people, also shut down the state’s significant petrochemical industry, disrupting supply chains nationwide, and caused an estimated $80 billion to $130 billion in direct and indirect economic losses. Hundreds of deaths are attributed to the unprecedented and record-breaking heat wave of the Pacific Northwest, and a British Columbia village where the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada was devastated by wildfire. Taking into account these and other weather-related tragedies, the losses become inestimable on a human scale.
Given the escalating human and economic costs of extreme weather events, it is no surprise that the Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan (AJP) prioritizes climate resiliency, a topic which has also been covered in a prior blog post. Significantly, the AJP pledges that: “Every dollar spent on rebuilding our infrastructure during the Biden administration will be used to prevent, reduce, and withstand the impacts of the climate crisis.” The AJP also proposes to spend $50 billion on investments to specifically improve the resiliency of the nation’s infrastructure, highlighting the importance of protecting critical infrastructure and services, defending vulnerable communities, and “[m]aximiz[ing] the resilience of land and water resources to protect communities and the environment.”
As for protecting vulnerable communities, the AJP points out that “[p]eople of color and low-income people are more likely to live in areas most vulnerable to flooding and other climate change-related weather events” and “[t]hey also are less likely to have the funds to prepare for and recover from extreme weather events.” To improve resiliency for those communities most vulnerable “physically and financially to climate-driven disasters”, the AJP proposes increased investments through existing programs, such as FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program and HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program, new initiatives at the Department of Transportation, as well as “a bipartisan tax credit to provide incentives to low- and middle-income families and to small businesses to invest in disaster resilience, and transition and relocation assistance to support community-led transitions for the most vulnerable tribal communities.”
Separately, the AJP would provide $500 million in grants and loan funds to renovate tens of thousands of multifamily homes to make them more resilient to extreme weather events.
Finally, the AJP proposes investing in nature-based resiliency, such as by restoring “our lands, forests, wetlands, watersheds, and coastal and ocean resources”, as a means of wildfire and drought mitigation, among other goals. The Administration also suggests that such restoration and resilience project funds would follow the guidelines of the proposed Outdoor Restoration Force Act (S. 5015). In recent years, greater attention has been paid to the potential benefits of nature-based infrastructure. Notably, for the first time, the American Society of Civil Engineers has included natural infrastructure as a proposed solution to improve resilience in its annual report card on the country’s infrastructure. Additionally, after several years of research and analysis with experts from around the world, this summer the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is set to release first-of-their-kind guidelines for nature-based resilience projects.
Beyond the AJP, protecting against extreme weather has been a priority of the Biden Administration from the beginning. A few days into his presidency, President Biden signed a sweeping climate Executive Order which, among other things, directed federal agencies to develop climate resiliency plans. More recently, on May 24, 2021, the Administration announced a plan to invest $1 billion in protecting communities through FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program. As with other actions taken by the Administration, this increased investment “seeks to categorically shift the federal focus from reactive disaster spending and toward research-supported, proactive investment in community resilience so that when the next hurricane, flood, or wildfire comes, communities are better prepared.” Along with the increased funding, the Administration also announced plans to develop and launch “a new NASA mission concept for an Earth System Observatory” to better forecast and monitor natural disasters.
At this point, it is unclear whether or how Congress will act to implement the Biden Administration’s proposals to protect against extreme weather. However, there are some signs of bipartisan interest in such legislation. For example, after the Texas freeze in early 2021, a bipartisan group of members of the Texas congressional delegation introduced the Power On Act (S. 1432) to help protect the electric grid infrastructure from extreme weather. Additionally, in 2019, the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee unanimously passed America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019 (S. 2302), which would have provided about $10 billion over five years for highway-based climate adaption and resilience projects.
Accordingly, while much remains up in the air, it is clear that climate resiliency is one important lens through which the Biden Administration plans to view infrastructure spending moving forward. The goal will be to protect against the effects of extreme weather events, and not just spend the money to rebuild and repair after such events. Thus, businesses competing for federal procurements or federally-funded infrastructure projects should consider ways to frame their proposals as furthering such resiliency. Furthermore, the issue is likely to become a bipartisan priority, especially as events like the Texas freeze become common across the country. With a renewed, bipartisan focus on protecting against extreme weather events, all Americans and businesses alike should benefit from the greater protections against damage, loss, interruption, and the human cost that results from events.