We recently argued in an essay for the Brookings Institution that greater attention should be given to investments in climate resilience in the Biden administration’s “Build Back Better” Plan, which was formally proposed as the “American Jobs Plan” on March 31.
Potential resilience investments and policies illustrate how most of the nation would benefit:
- Higher seawalls would better protect Eastern and Southern coastal states from more frequent and intense hurricanes and windstorms.
- Drones could detect and enable the suppression of wildfires before they start or get out of control, as their use in Australia shows.
- Updated hazard maps would equip policymakers and regional and local governments with better data for zoning and planning, and compensation for those adversely affected by local zoning changes.
- Ensuring risk-based pricing for federal flood insurance would encourage homeowners living in flood-prone areas to elevate their structures or move to safer locations.
Investments in climate resilience, however, so far have not received the attention they deserve from policymakers, who have focused on mitigation: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, coupled with technologies to capture carbon from the air or industrial facilities, and embody it in materials such as cement or inject it underground.
Yet even if more aggressive climate mitigation efforts are undertaken soon, already-high ambient concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere mean that it will take years before global temperatures quit rising – and ideally begin to fall. In the meantime, people and businesses throughout the country will continue to be exposed to the huge costs and risks of deaths and injuries from climate-related weather events. One recent report in the New York Times in the wake of the Texas electricity nightmare, which was likely aggravated by climate change, highlights the danger.
This challenge should have been evident from the avalanche of natural disasters experienced in 2020 alone:
- A record 30 named tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic;
- record temperatures in Death Valley – with the hottest temperature on Earth in the last 80 years;
- record wildfires in the western U.S. and record heat and fires in Australia; and
- record low sea ice in the Arctic.
As we highlighted in our Brookings essay, there is ample and growing evidence linking such extreme weather-related events to climate change.
Now that the “climate wolf” is at the door, Congress and the administration will soon have the opportunity to deal with resilience through the American Jobs Plan, which recommends a $50 billion investment over 10 years out of the $2.3 trillion 10-year total cost of the package.
While this is a good start, in our view it is not enough.
The estimated cost of protecting U.S. coastlines from rising ocean levels alone is expected to top $400 billion over the next 20 years, or $20 billion annually. This cost doesn’t include higher climate change-induced costs of fires and windstorms, nor does it appear to include funding for pre-disaster buyouts of property and structures in areas designated by FEMS as “high hazard” locations, where costs of additional resilience investments like higher seawalls are prohibitive or greater resilience is not practical.
There is little or no chance for any Republican backing of the overall American Jobs Plan, or its planned follow-on that would “fix” the Affordable Care Act and enhance investments in education and training. The simple reason: Republican opposition to any increases – other than “user fees” which the administration has so far opposed – to pay for the plan or any part of it. Accordingly, under current Senate rules, the plan can only pass in some form through reconciliation procedures that only require a majority (not the 60 votes required to avoid a filibuster).
If the administration and at least 10 Republican senators were willing to find common ground on a part of the Jobs Plan, the administration could claim a bipartisan legislative victory. How could this be done?
There is a potential compromise in plain sight — one that recognizes that investments in climate resilience are in principle not partisan. When hurricanes, floods, and fires occur, they do not victimize only or primarily citizens of one party or the other. Your politics should have no bearing on your desire to avoid being killed, injured, or economically damaged by any of these events.
To make this shift to a less partisan investment framing, the administration could characterize the entire resilience package as “emergency” spending to prepare and respond to the costs of future weather-related emergencies. The administration could also make it clear in the legislation that this portion of the 10-year plan would be exempt from needing “pay-as-you-go” offsets to avoid predictable fights over what, if any, taxes should be imposed to pay for it.
Another approach would be for the administration to propose cutting $50 billion in other spending (for instance, military) to pay for the lower-bound climate resilience component of its larger plan. Spending cuts are almost always more attractive to Republicans than tax increases.
A third approach would be for the administration to compromise with Republicans and allow some form of “user fee” – so the administration could avoid having to say it was agreeing to a “tax” on households earning under $400,000, a pledge it has stated it will not do.
Perhaps there is some split-the difference combination of spending cuts, a dedicated user fee, and some deficit financing that might produce the bipartisan climate-resilience investment compromise we have in mind.
In principle, the same sort of compromise might be reached to adopt a larger portion of the American Jobs plan, such as most or all of the physical infrastructure spending, or up to roughly $800 billion over 10 years. The problem is that the higher the price tag, the more difficult it becomes to gain the requisite agreement on the combination of “pay-fors” and deficits to finance it.
One further part of the narrower strategy we outline here merits attention – choice of words. The way that issues are framed or named can make all the difference in politics. In the interest of compromise, it could be useful to recast resilience spending as common-sense weather resilience investments. Despite the recognition among many Republican voters that climate change is real, that is less true among Republican senators. Any resilience plan prefaced by the word “climate” will face potentially insurmountable opposition among Republican senators. Making this one change – substituting weather for climate – could be enough to put any package over the bipartisan finish line.
Ultimately, whether any weather resilience plan can be separated from the larger American Jobs Plan depends on the political willingness of the administration, Democrats and at least 10 Republican senators to find something to compromise on, and the trust to make it happen. Whether we have passed that point in our politics remains to be seen, but here is a narrow but potentially valuable path out of partisan gridlock.
Robert Litan, an economist and attorney, is a nonresident Senior Fellow in the Economic Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, a program he formerly directed. Among his prior government positions, Litan is a former Associate Director of the Office of Management and Budget.
John Fleming is an entrepreneur and business strategist who works at the intersection of climate change, finance, and technology.