This is a guest post by Benjamin Silliman, research associate for Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Amid controversy whether the Green New Deal manifesto is too broad, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) spoke out in an interview published yesterday to elaborate on direct Congressional actions that might come about in alignment with the resolution’s chief environmental focus. Distinguishing the resolution’s aims from his past efforts to pass cap-and-trade market pricing carbon emissions credits, Markey noted, “We could wind up putting a price on carbon, but we have to protect the most vulnerable simultaneously.”
Markey’s suggestions in the interview may give a hint at what Democrats think is possible to pass right now: “Practically speaking, we could pass a tax-extender bill for tax breaks for wind, solar, batteries, electric vehicles. We could pass an infrastructure bill that would be a green infrastructure bill. We can take the appropriations process, and in each individual area insert funding for green programs. We can make a down payment on what we need to do now on infrastructure, on taxes, on appropriations. And that is the beginning of a pragmatic way of looking at this existential challenge.”
Markey’s words might resonate with many members of Congress, from both parties, who are frustrated with the executive branch’s inability to respond effectively to the pressing issue of climate change. Congress could exercise its authority over the budget to start funding green infrastructure programs within the U.S. Department of Defense, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and federally funded projects through companies like the Tennessee Valley Authority or the Export-Import Bank of the United States.
Current U.S. government support for infrastructure is woefully inadequate. The nation’s energy, rail, water, road, communications, and industrial systems are in need of significant investment. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that there is an infrastructure spending gap in the United States of nearly $1.5 trillion needed by 2025 just to maintain the quality of current infrastructure. These estimates mean there is a tremendous opportunity to authorize appropriations that could be used more wisely to address transportation, energy, water, and defense infrastructure in a manner that is more resilient to climate change and supports the transition to cleaner forms of energy as upgrades are needed. To do this successfully, data-driven metrics clearly evaluating previous infrastructure’s cost, effectiveness, vulnerabilities, and environmental impact are needed, and should be a high priority for congressional research to establish. Developing a procedural and flexible evaluation structure will allow for optimal technologies to be deployed, maximizing environmental gain for cost.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has openly and repeatedly raised concern about the effects of climate change. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, DoD maintains a portfolio of $1.2 trillion of infrastructure across 4,800 sites worldwide as of 2017. During the next round of budget increases, infrastructure spending should be tied to green spending and research. The Trump administration has also made it clear it plans to “rebuild” the military. To do so will require substantial infrastructure investment. Ensuring that infrastructure is resilient to climate risks is vital.
Congress should look for low-hanging fruit elsewhere in the budget as well. Disaster relief organizations, like FEMA, that participate in large-scale infrastructure investment for repair after damaging events, would benefit from requirements that consider climate change. In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated that natural disasters caused $300 billion in damages. To supplement relief resources, Congress appropriated an additional $34.5 billion in post-disaster funds and forgave $16 billion of debt for the National Flood Insurance Program. In the future, when designating supplemental relief funds, a green infrastructure or increased weatherization requirement would help ensure that damaged infrastructure is replaced with buildings and energy systems that are better prepared for extreme weather events. The damages experienced by Californians after utility PG&E failed to upgrade its equipment against heat and fire is a telling lesson in the liability risks that come when infrastructure cannot meet current environmental conditions. Initial funds allowing for better planning and access to capital to make needed weatherization and energy efficiency upgrades could potentially reduce the extent of future relief needed in the future.
Congress also can use its budget influence on federally-funded infrastructure projects to require certain environmental standards as a prerequisite. That could include environmental targets on state-owned entities like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a government-backed company that built power projects during the original New Deal and recently opted to shutdown coal plants. TVA is already managing liabilities from coal ash spills.
Activists looking for bold, comprehensive action won’t be satisfied with the U.S. Congress taking these incremental steps. However, such steps are immediately implementable and would avoid one of the biggest problems confronting our ability to implement climate solutions, mainly that infrastructure is long-lasting. Once it is built, it is harder to allocate funds to replace it. Forcing greener choices in current appropriations would help pave a path towards broader legislation.