Opinion: A Smarter, Safer Approach to Infrastructure Investment

By Bob Perciasepe and Steve Ellis

President Joe Biden’s commitment to transforming America into a climate-resilient nation is a tremendous step in the right direction. Meaningful action on infrastructure is within our reach, but Congress must use the opportunity to advance a smarter and safer approach toward disaster preparedness and resiliency that balances environmental protection and better stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

Despite the increased conversation on climate, the United States is woefully unprepared to deal with the current crisis — much less a future one. Record-breaking numbers of wildfires, hurricanes, floods and droughts have wreaked havoc on millions of lives across the country, proving that our current infrastructure is ill-equipped to withstand the increasing number of natural disasters in the 21st century.

In 2020 alone, the United States experienced 22 billion-dollar disasters and unfortunately, American taxpayers are continuously on the hook to fund emergency cleanup. The urgency of the climate crisis also emphasizes the need for practical and cost-effective solutions. Pre-disaster mitigation policies — proven to save lives and taxpayer dollars — is the better, more efficient response to the changing climate and the extreme weather patterns that follow. With storm and wildfire seasons beginning earlier and lasting longer, there is an increased need to pursue and meet the infrastructure needs of the future.

Invest in Resilience Now, Save Dollars Down the Road

Studies have shown that every $1 invested in risk mitigation is estimated to save $6 on post-disaster recovery. These mitigation dollars can – in effect – spend down eventual disaster costs. By implementing preventative measures now, the country can better protect communities, taxpayers, and the environment from the consequences of natural disasters later.

For example, rather than simply funding post-disaster aid that does not reduce the impact of future climate-related events, the federal government must focus new spending on pre-disaster mitigation investments in climate adaptation, resilience and smarter planning. This should include funding and incentivizing natural infrastructure, such as healthy wetlands, mangroves and forests, which provides a practical, cost-effective way to protect those communities most at-risk. The dollar savings are significant, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimating that U.S. coastal wetlands provide $23.2 billion in storm protection each year.

Build for Future Climate Realities

As the nation looks to allocate billions of dollars to construct or renovate federally funded buildings and roads, taxpayers must be assured they are built to last. Construction must meet minimum mitigation standards, ensuring that all new investments are built to withstand the next generation of storms. A Federal Flood Risk Management Standard should be reinstated to require federally funded projects to either be located outside of high-risk areas or to be protected against a higher level of flooding than traditionally required. Bipartisan legislation like the Built to Last Act, introduced by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), would also put forward-looking, science-driven climate and weather information at the forefront when setting building codes.

Requiring smarter building standards will lead to safer communities, which is why this principle of resiliency can and should extend to low-income housing. Too often, low-income housing is built in or near wildfire and flood zones. In fact, the number of affordable housing units at risk from coastal flooding and sea level rise is expected to more than triple over the next three decades. More must be done to strengthen our nation’s supply of affordable housing against climate risks.

Maximize Public-Private Partnerships

The United States has an infrastructure funding gap of more than $2 trillion, and the public sector alone cannot close it. Policymakers at all levels of government must find ways to make every dollar go further, which is why they should consider enhanced, well-structured public-private partnerships and risk-transfer opportunities. The private sector, particularly the insurance industry, has both the willingness and capacity to take on additional risk associated with natural disasters.

By leveraging private financing and insurance and reinsurance availability, policymakers can shift some financial burdens associated with climate change from the government’s balance sheet to willing private-sector participants, protecting municipal finances and local economies while ensuring that Americans have the coverage they need when disaster strikes.

This year will center around rebuilding our nation after a tumultuous period of natural disasters and a once-in-a-lifetime global health pandemic. Our leaders on both sides of the aisle have a unique opportunity to implement solutions that will protect us from future, inevitable climate events and create a safer, more resilient America for generations to come.

Bob Perciasepe is the president of Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Steve Ellis is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Click here to read in Morning Consult.