President Trump announced details of his long-awaited infrastructure plan last week, one of the central elements of his general election campaign and a proposal that was expected to boast more support among moderates and Democrats than most of the president’s ideas.
The plan seeks to make $1.5 trillion available for maintaining and building the nation’s infrastructure, according to CNN. Federal spending will only total $200 billion, which will be used to match spending by state and local governments.
But the plan, and the administration’s policy as whole, ignores one of the key threats to infrastructure, and one of the key problems that put the system in such a state of disrepair to begin with. Trump’s infrastructure plan, unsurprisingly, does not mention climate change even once in its 53 pages. The plan doesn’t offer any path toward adaptation, resilience, or even refurbishing the damaged roads and bridges necessary for evacuation from flood conditions in coastal areas. These are not problems forecasted to happen in the future. They are already affecting American life today.
In 2017, 360 people died in the US from climate and weather events, which caused a record breaking $306 billion in damages. In September last year, the Government Accountability Office released a report saying fire and extreme weather have cost the federal government $350 billion in the last ten years. The 2017 National Climate Assessment, which the administration signed off on, said that it “is virtually certain that sea level rise this century and beyond will pose a growing challenge to coastal communities, infrastructure, and ecosystems from increased (permanent) inundation, more frequent and extreme coastal flooding, erosion of coastal landforms, and saltwater intrusion within coastal rivers and aquifers.”
According to the earlier 2014 National Climate Assessment, these effects had already been felt. Infrastructure had already been damaged by rising sea levels, increased downpours, and extreme heat – and these factors were expected only to worsen. They attribute much of this damage to flooding of rivers, lakes, and to downpours and melting snowpack overwhelming flood protections in urban areas. These factors are also threatening ports and military installations along the coast.
Furthermore, extreme heat is damaging infrastructure like roads, railways, and airport runways.
In urban areas, these threats are particularly dire. In these areas, large populations depend on infrastructure systems that are highly interdependent. Problems with an electrical grid, for example, can affect transport, water treatment, and health services. With 80 percent of the US population living in cities and metropolitan areas, it’s not hard to imagine how serious problems could arise.
In 2012, New York City’s subway system was out of service for at least a full week, following Superstorm Sandy, after suffering the most severe damage seen in more than a century of operation. In rural states such as Vermont, Iowa, Missouri, and Tennessee, downpours, hail, and flooding have impacted roads, rail systems, and bridges.
Another study last year, published in the journal Nature, discusses the increases in costs to maintain and build roads in the face of more frequent extreme heat and precipitation. These costs alone will reach tens of billions of dollars in the coming decades, falling disproportionately on municipalities which have limited resources.
Not only does the infrastructure plan ignore climate change, it would erode many existing environmental protections. In an effort to reduce delays for infrastructure projects seeking federal permits, the plan proposes reducing federal permit times to two years, down from five to ten. It would do this by limiting litigation against pending infrastructure permits. This includes new limitations to the legal avenues that have been used to fight oil pipelines such as the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Specifically, it would reduce the statute of limitations on legal challenges to permitting decisions from six years to merely 150 days. This would allow less time for environmental groups to build legal challenges. In addition to the localized environmental risks posed by such pipelines, the move is another expression of the Trump administration’s radically pro-fossil fuel agenda, also leading to increases in greenhouse gas emissions. In the long run, increased extraction and use of fossil fuels will only exacerbate climate change and the extreme weather that is already threatening infrastructure.
By not taking basic steps toward climate change resilience, the plan has already failed its central goal, of updating, and providing for the future of the nation’s infrastructure. According to a Twitter post by climate scientist and US National Academy of Science member Peter Gleick, by not mentioning climate, the plan is “by definition, inappropriate, poorly designed, and guaranteed to be focused on building the wrong things, badly.”
According to the New York Times, engineers and other scientists have pointed out that failing to consider climate change may leave billions of dollars in new infrastructure susceptible to damage. Future changes in the environment could even make them obsolete altogether.
Union of Concerned Scientists president Ken Kimmell said in a statement:
“This proposal doesn’t begin to respond to the scale of assistance local communities need to cope with these mounting impacts — it merely shifts the burden of rebuilding our nation’s crumbling infrastructure onto state and local budgets which are already strapped… this is a plan to shore up the infrastructure of the past, rather than invest in what we need for the future.”
A modernized approach to infrastructure maintenance is something the US sorely needs. And a bipartisan proposal that helps average Americans and reaches across the aisle to Democrats would serve the administration well on a political level. But this proposal isn’t likely to accomplish either one, thanks to Trump’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge the scientific consensus on climate change.