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How Biden’s infrastructure funding will help the US prepare for future climate disasters


By Ella Nilsen, CNN

Around $50 billion of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package is marked for climate resilience — replacing roads to withstand extreme rainfall, treating forests to prevent wildfires and shoring up reservoirs that sank to new lows this year amid incredible drought.

As climate disasters become more costly, federal officials say they are itching to use the money to reinforce America’s infrastructure before those disasters strike.

“We have projects that have been unfunded for five and 10 years in many cases,” Robert Bonnie, senior adviser for climate at the US Department of Agriculture, told CNN. “We have a lot of places where we literally have projects ready to go; we [didn’t] have the funding to implement them.”

Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure package, freshly signed by the President on Monday, contains funding to tackle drought, heat, floods and wildfires. And while it does little to address the root cause of the climate crisis and to lower greenhouse gas emissions (the bulk of that would happen in the President’s larger economic package), the funding is intended to help make the US more livable, even as disasters accelerate.

After a summer of extreme weather, federal officials told CNN they are already preparing for next year.

“There’s been an eagerness at all levels of government, including at the community level, to think ahead about next year and how to plan,” David Hayes, special assistant to the President for climate policy, told CNN.

The US Forest Service — the federal government’s main firefighting agency, within the US Department of Agriculture — has spent years managing wildfires as they came. But climate change has exacerbated the West’s wildfire season, and the agency has struggled to address underlying issues.

It will take “large-scale resilience and restoration” to turn the tide on Western wildfires, according to Bonnie.

“We’re going to look a lot more holistically at forest health, expanding the number of acres that get treated with mitigation approaches,” Hayes said.

With the infrastructure funding, the Biden administration wants to vastly expand the approximately 3 million to 4 million acres of trees that are currently treated to prevent wildfires. That includes strategies like prescribed burns, clearing away invasive species of grass that act like tinderboxes to spread fire, and reforesting devastated areas.

“We want to double, triple, quadruple that,” Hayes said. “We’re looking at a very significant multiplication of the size.”

While agency officials told CNN they are pleased to have the funding, Bonnie said the infrastructure money is really just a “down payment” on what ultimately needs to be invested to address the climate crisis.

For instance, the Forest Service spends upward of 50% of its budget fighting wildfires every year. Bonnie said Biden’s massive climate and economic bill that’s yet to be passed would be a game changer for the agency and what it can do to mitigate fires. That bill would allocate more than $20 billion for US forest conservation and management, a large portion of which would go to preventing and fighting wildfires.

“The infrastructure bill is a great down payment on this challenge,” Bonnie told CNN. “What the Forest Service really needs is a 10-year significant step up in resources. The reconciliation package would move us years ahead.”

The infrastructure funding includes money to make roads themselves more resilient to flooding using porous pavement and to expand tree cover in cities in order to alleviate extreme heat. It will also fund projects to deal with the West’s historic, multi-year drought.

The Department of the Interior plans to use the money to ensure reservoirs are stable and not leaking water and to fund desalination projects to make salt water drinkable.

This year was one of the driest on record in the West, and one federal official told CNN that “drought” may no longer be adequate to describe the climate crisis’s effect on the region.

“Drought is one way to describe it, but people are starting to use words like aridification,” Liz Klein, senior counselor to the secretary at the Interior Department, told CNN. “Climate impacts are coming to these places in a very real way. It’s this silent disaster that people don’t view in the same way as floods and fires.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will use most of the $6.8 billion it’s receiving in the package to help communities deal with flooding.

“We’ll be able to reach more communities and we’ll be able to provide additional technical assistance,” said David Maurstad, a FEMA deputy associate administrator and the senior executive of the National Flood Insurance Program.

Mitigation can mean a number of things, including elevating homes and buildings that have been struck repeatedly by flooding. FEMA can also use funding to offer buyouts to residents whose homes are being swallowed by rising sea levels.

“The dollars can be used for multiple purposes,” Maurstad said. “Depending upon the community, buyouts may make more sense than in other communities. In some communities, elevation may make more sense than relocation.”

In addition to climate resilience funding, the infrastructure bill includes a number of provisions to advance Biden’s environmental justice commitment, including $55 billion to replace lead pipes in the nation’s water lines, funding for public transportation, $21 billion to clean up Superfund and brownfield sites, and funding to electrify school buses and transition away from dirty diesel buses.

The bill also includes $7.5 billion to start installing a network of electric vehicle charging stations, although that figure is far short of what advocates had initially called for.

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