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Climate Change Is Making the U.S. Poorer Than It Realizes

  • 05 November 2021
  • 3min read

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The trillion-dollar spending package that the Senate has passed along to the House is being described as a once-in-a-generation fix for America’s deteriorating infrastructure. It should be viewed as only the first in a long series of such big investments, because Earth’s climate is changing faster than America’s existing roads, bridges and other infrastructure can withstand.

In the past 12 months, weather-related events have illustrated what’s happening. Salem, Oregon, hit 117 degrees Fahrenheit. The West is coping with its worst drought on record. In February, a polar vortex drove temperatures in Texas to 50 degrees below normal.

Most U.S. infrastructure was built to withstand once-in-a-century floods, fires, storms and droughts, so that only 1% of it was vulnerable each year. But those disasters now happen every 20 years or less.

And our communities turn out to be far less equipped than expected to cope. Texas has still not weatherproofed its power plants. California’s public utilities are again cutting electricity in areas where power lines pose an unacceptable risk of catastrophic fire in high winds. Portland has had to close its transit systems when its wiring melted in unexpected heat. 

The early arrival of serious climate disruption is effectively writing down the true value of our built environment. Much of it will need major upgrades or even full replacement.

The U.S., in other words, has lost a significant part of its accumulated wealth. Houses, roads, office buildings, power plants, ports, water treatment facilities, schools, hospitals, electric lines and telecommunications facilities are newly vulnerable to higher winds, harsher freezes, rising sea levels, hotter summer temperatures and more extreme droughts. Now, they must be relocated, hardened against the weather, replaced more frequently and depreciated faster.

Northern cities suddenly need more air conditioning. Low-lying sewage treatment plants have to be relocated. Millions of homes built near dry forests and grasslands need fireproofing. Frame buildings must be treated to prevent termite infestation. Hundreds of miles of coastal freeways will have to be moved inland. Transmission lines will have to be buried. Coastal communities need protection against storm surges. Salt-contaminated drinking-water wells must be replaced. The costs stand to be enormous for both public- and private-property owners.

Balancing these needs is an ongoing trend that could substantially compensate for the cost: We are in the midst of a major transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, including wind and solar power, electric cars and trucks, and zero-emission homes. These technologies are cheaper than what they are replacing. And if we accelerate their adoption, their prices will drop even faster and their economic benefits will grow. Decarbonizing the U.S. economy, as part of a global energy transition, will also lower future costs from climate disruption.

To take advantage of this opportunity, U.S. policy makers will have to change the way they think about future risks. They need to copy the Dutch, who put flood prevention first rather than rely on rescue and recovery when levees or communities drown.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, ambitious as it is, neglects the preventive maintenance that could allay long-term costs of disaster relief and infrastructure repair. Consider, for example, that the U.S. has 2,000 dams at risk of failing due to extreme rainfall, possibly wiping out downstream communities. When California authorities refused to repair the spillway of the Oroville Dam, as recommended, the next rainy winter brought the dam to the verge of failure, necessitating evacuation of several hundred thousand residents and $1 billion worth of repairs. Preventive maintenance could have lowered the cost 90%.

By spending now to repair dams before they fail, fireproof houses before neighboring forests burn, install micro-grids before the next hurricane in coastal communities, and replace hard pavement with absorbent surfaces before a 500-year rainfall, the U.S. could reap enormous long-term savings.

Currently, we do the opposite. Not believing in prevention, we underinvest in virtually every aspect of our built environment. According to the World Bank, European countries spend 5% of their gross domestic product on building and maintaining their infrastructure, while the U.S. spends 2.3%.

To address the social and economic disruption that both climate change and a rapid energy transition will impose, the U.S. especially needs to invest in the infrastructure needs of neglected communities and regions. Consider that the country’s rural fire-fighting capacity, left over from an era when a 10th as many homes were at fire risk, is only a fraction of that in large cities. The fires sweeping the West this summer cover territory vastly larger than New York City, but the temporary firefighters battling them number only half as many as work full time in New York.  

As cities as far away as Chicago and New York have seen this summer, the smoke from wildfires doesn’t remain confined to rural areas. Climate change will intensify weather-related crises everywhere. To minimize the damage, the U.S. will need investments in infrastructure well beyond what Congress and the White House yet acknowledge. By embracing the new realities, accelerating the clean energy transition, and adopting a prevention-first approach to extreme weather, it’s possible to make sure that climate change doesn’t make the country poorer.

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