How to boost climate resilience: Fill in infrastructure law funding gaps
By Mark W. Rupp
When President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) into law in August, advocates for climate action cheered its unprecedented support for measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With more than $369 billion in climate-friendly incentives for electric vehicles and more, the IRA is a historic legislative achievement on its own. But the legislation also pairs with the earlier Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) to turbocharge climate adaptation and resilience.
Since the IIJA became law last November, the Biden administration and congressional leaders have said the act contains $50 billion for climate resilience. But, as Georgetown Climate Center has previously noted, every dollar of the IIJA’s $1.2 trillion represents an opportunity to improve climate resilience across the United States. Given the clear and present danger posed by the impacts of a changing climate, every investment funded by the bill can — and should — be designed to make our communities better prepared to withstand the increasingly severe weather and other impacts climate change is already fueling.
IIJA has created numerous opportunities for states, tribes and local governments to invest in equitable, climate-smart infrastructure. And now, IRA provides still more funding for climate change adaptation efforts that can further leverage IIJA’s reach — particularly in disadvantaged communities.
IRA fills crucial gaps in federal resilience funding that IIJA didn’t cover. For example, IRA provides the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — which did not receive money through IIJA — with $1 billion to support climate-resilient affordable housing through improvements in energy and water efficiency.
Moreover, IIJA — which focused heavily on badly needed investments in transportation infrastructure — did not address resilience at national parks or on other public lands. IRA provides nearly $1 billion to the Department of the Interior for conservation, resilience and ecosystem restoration across our nation’s public landscapes, including $250 million for the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also received $250 million for endangered species habitat — which not only supports ecosystem restoration but also benefits natural infrastructure like wetlands that help protect human communities from coastal climate hazards.
IIJA provides the U.S. Department of Agriculture with $1.5 billion for public and private efforts to protect forests at the state level, and $2.8 billion for ecosystem restoration in the national forest system. And IRA provides nearly $20 billion to USDA through the Natural Resources Conservation Service for expanded incentives to help farmers, ranchers and private landowners implement conservation strategies that will help address climate change and build resilience to the ever-increasing challenges of drought and flooding.
The IRA doesn’t just fill gaps in IIJA’s resilience funding. It also establishes two new and notable grant programs expressly designed to support climate adaptation in the disadvantaged communities that are too often hit “first and worst” by climate change and pollution. They are the Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grants program as well as the Neighborhood Access and Equity Grant program.
The Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grants program provides $3 billion in grants that benefit disadvantaged communities, helping to address, for example, health risks from urban heat islands and extreme heat — challenges that are affecting more and more people across the country each year.
The Neighborhood Access and Equity Grant program is targeted at improving safety and walkability in communities while expanding access to affordable transportation. The program includes nearly $2 billion for planning and capacity-building activities in disadvantaged or underserved communities.
Despite such unprecedented federal outlays, there is no guarantee that communities will receive equitable resilience benefits. Fulfilling that promise will require federal and state governments to implement IIJA and IRA through a “whole-of-government” approach that truly supports communities on the ground. That means agencies must coordinate to ensure that programs in any one agency can be leveraged with others in other agencies to get more bang for each buck invested.
Programs across different agencies — like the Department of Transportation’s Healthy Streets, FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, and Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water Act State Revolving Fund (SRF) — can be woven together to achieve multiple benefits within a community. EPA’s SRF money is especially flexible and can be used to finance Green Streets projects, which can include planting trees to address non-point source water pollution while also providing shade to address extreme heat.
Even agencies that did not receive resources through the new laws can further leverage IIJA and IRA resources. For example, Department of Labor and Department of Education programs can train workers to build resilient homes, commercial buildings, and landscapes. And the Department of Defense, which maintains hundreds of installations across the United States, can bring its vast resources into surrounding civilian communities to build resilience.
For coastal communities dealing with sea-level rise, programs within IIJA and IRA can be woven together to support planning for and implementation of managed retreat strategies. As people move to higher ground, the IIJA and IRA resources can support the infrastructure needs of receiving communities. And as people move out of flood-prone areas, there are resources available for landscape-scale conservation to provide natural buffers to sea-level rise.
The challenge is that all of these resources flowing through federal agencies are on different cycles and already capacity-challenged communities need support to access them. Federal agencies can help, here, too. Regional offices for various government agencies spanning housing, health, the environment and agriculture exist precisely for the purpose of working directly with state and local governments and with communities. At the same time, these agencies’ D.C. headquarters must model and drive a whole-of-government approach and identify and remedy any barriers to the integration of agency resources.
Climate change is affecting every aspect of our society. IIJA and IRA together can provide a game-changing boost for badly needed resilience and adaptation activities across the U.S. if every level of government is working together to make the most of this moment.
Mark W. Rupp is Georgetown Climate Center’s Adaptation Program director. Part of Georgetown Law, the center serves as a resource to state, federal and local policymakers who are working to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and to help communities adapt to and become more resilient to the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels and flooding, extreme heat and severe weather events.