Infrastructure funding offers unprecedented opportunity to build community-level climate resilience
by Mark Rupp
Last month, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Sixth Assessment Report. At the core of the report is a stark warning that, to date, our efforts to adapt to the changing climate are not enough to protect people and ecosystems around the globe.
But here in the United States, there is some good news. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in November, offers state, regional, local and tribal governments vital resources to plan and implement equitable adaptation strategies. The White House and lawmakers say that some $47 billion of the $1.2 trillion total is slated for “resilience.”
Federal officials rightly point to dedicated funding in BIL to address drought conditions in the west, the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support communities reduce risks from disasters, the Weatherization Assistance Program and more.
But lawmakers only seeing resilience in a modest portion of BIL masks the real opportunity. At the Georgetown Climate Center, we see resilience woven throughout the entirety of BIL. Every dollar in BIL must be invested with an eye toward building resilience and reducing the impacts of a warming planet on our communities.
The fact is, climate change is already affecting every aspect of our lives — how and where food can be grown; the safety of our communities from extreme heat and weather events; where we live, play and work; our health; and more. That’s why it is crucial that all our nation’s infrastructure investments are implemented to withstand climate change conditions for decades to come.
In that light, it’s encouraging that BIL resources flow not just through the Department of Transportation (not surprising given the bill’s emphasis on transportation infrastructure), but also through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of the Interior, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), Department of Energy and Department of Health and Human Services.
Every dollar of BIL supports resilience
Just two weeks ago, EPA released an implementation memorandum for its tens of billions of dollars in State Revolving Funds (SRFs). While much of this funding is appropriately directed toward vital efforts like replacing toxic lead pipes, there is tremendous flexibility for states to use their Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water SRFs to promote conservation and upgrade stormwater systems to better handle climate-fueled floods and other disasters — all critical for building resilient communities, even though these funds are not included in the $47 billion called out for “resilience.”
At the heart of resilience planning is sound science and data. The BIL includes $65 billion for the Department of Commerce to improve access to broadband internet that will, for example, support farmers in rural America. Beth Ford, CEO of Land O’Lakes, observes that broadband will help farmers optimize their productivity. That’s critical in a changing climate: broadband will connect farmers to networks that will support their understanding of climate vulnerabilities and how they can address them with precision agriculture and other technologies. And data collected by farmers is hugely valuable to scientists and agencies. These opportunities aren’t captured in the $47 billion figure, either.
States need to be ready to receive billions of dollars and work with communities
Because climate affects every aspect of our lives, it is imperative that states and communities think holistically about what their needs are and how to organize themselves to bring in and deploy resources. Given the historic amount of funding in BIL, and how much of the money states will be responsible for distributing, states are realizing they may need new governance structures to make sure the money is invested strategically in communities. Just as President Biden appointed former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu as The White House Infrastructure Coordinator, many governors are appointing their own Infrastructure Directors or Coordinators.
In Arkansas, Governor Asa Hutchinson is taking a particularly robust “whole of government” approach. Through Executive Order 20–19, the governor brings together all cabinet agencies that report to him to ensure that, as money flows, “the State of Arkansas, its citizens and businesses realize the maximum relief and benefits available” under the law. That opens the door for engagement with groups like the Arkansas Municipal League, Arkansas Black Mayors Association, Association of Arkansas Counties and more. To ensure that all levels of government can best leverage resources across communities, states must also engage with disadvantaged communities, philanthropies, non-profit organizations and others.
Also crucial is coordination among the federal government, states, local governments and tribes. Here, too, there is good news. Federal agencies have considerable experience coordinating investments while supporting local capacity in communities. For example, then-President Barack Obama launched the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative (SC2) to bring a whole-of-government approach to supporting chronically distressed cities.
We know that needs in each city vary and approaches to address them vary, too. SC2 was designed to be a fulsome effort to collaborate across the federal and local governments with foundations, non-profit organizations, private sector partners and more. Similarly, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force was a model for bringing state, local and federal agencies together to rebuild storm-ravaged communities in New York and New Jersey.
If there was a shortcoming of SC2, it was that resources were limited. Agencies had to cobble together whatever resources they had to contribute. That is not the case with BIL — by a long shot.
Of course, what really matters is that these dollars reach the communities that need them most, especially disadvantaged communities that have all too often faced obstacles to badly needed resources and experienced decades of underinvestment.
The IPCC report reminds us that we are far from meeting the challenge of climate adaptation. But the BIL offers us a transformational opportunity to invest over a trillion dollars in line with the Administration’s goal to prepare our nation for a changing climate, now and into the future.
It’s an opportunity we must seize.
Mark Rupp is Georgetown Climate Center’s Adaptation Program Director, leading the adaptation team, and providing strategic direction for its work in support of resilience, equity and community-based solutions at the local, state and federal levels.