By Pete Sepp and Rob Moore
While Congress considers much-needed investments in roads, bridges, sewers, and other critical infrastructure, it must consider a crucial component: How do we get the most value for our money when a changing climate challenges the resilience of the things we depend on every day?
Right now, the U.S. is dealing with climate-driven disasters across the country, including historic wildfires in California, a deepening drought across the Southwest and the devastation from Hurricane Ida that stretches from Louisiana and Mississippi in the south to New York in the northeast. The growing frequency and severity of disasters like these disrupt and displace hundreds of thousands of people, cost the U.S. billions of dollars each year and pose a significant threat to our nation’s infrastructure — including transportation systems, water and wastewater systems, government buildings and the power grid.
In Wisconsin, residents are not immune to weather-related infrastructure threats. In fact, the state has experienced 16 extreme weather events between 2010-2020, costing Wisconsin taxpayers $10 billion in damages. As weather events grow in cost, frequency, and extremity, there has never been a more critical time to ensure our infrastructure will stand up in the face of natural disasters.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) along with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have partnered on bipartisan legislation to address the current crisis. The Built to Last Act, which was introduced in Congress this April, would help local, state, and federal governments, along with the private sector, build stronger and more climate resilient infrastructure that can better survive future storms.
This legislation aims to develop the best available information on weather-related risks, including floods, hurricanes, and wildfires and make sure it’s utilized in our building and zoning codes, siting and design standards, and other criteria that guide where we build and how we build.
For example, if passed, the Built to Last Act would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop a consistent set of metrological best practices available to the public, as well as offer advice and technical assistance to help ensure organizations are able to incorporate this information into new building standards, codes and voluntary certifications. These changes will drastically help mitigate the challenges posed by the changing climate and empower states, communities, and businesses to plan accordingly.
Although our respective organizations represent different constituencies, we both see the benefits of this bill. For example, the Built to Last Act recognizes the disproportionate impact that natural disasters have on poor communities. In Wisconsin, one of the state’s pressing challenges is the availability of low-income housing. According to housing advocates, too many residents have to spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent for a home that may be substandard. The proposed legislation by Baldwin would require new affordable housing that’s resilient and built to withstand future storms.
Reducing costs to taxpayers as well as residents in affected communities is yet another advantage of the Built to Last Act’s approach. For decades, all levels of government have disproportionately allocated funding to simply rebuilding communities after disaster strikes, replicating the vulnerabilities that were just exposed. Yet, research shows that investing in resilience and mitigation measures now saves residents and taxpayer money and makes homes and businesses safer for the long-term. For every $1 spent on pre-disaster mitigation efforts, we could be saving $6 in post-disaster cleanup and avoided damages. As our economy continues to rebuild after a tumultuous year, every additional dollar saved is a win for Americans.
It’s an important sign that there is this bipartisan effort to protect communities and taxpayers. Given the reality of the extreme weather facing every corner of our nation, all members of Congress should join in supporting this bill. The Built to Last Act is a first step in recognizing the real impact that a changing climate has on everyone — and the power we all have to do something socially and fiscally responsible about it.
Pete Sepp is president National Taxpayers Union and Rob Moore is director of the Water & Climate Team at NRDC.