Midwestern Floods, Climate Resiliency, and the Green New Deal

Source: Earth Institute

The natural cycles of floods and extreme weather are being intensified by climate change, and massive disasters are destroying farms in the midwestern United States. Nearly a century ago, back when we had a federal government that built civilian infrastructure, the Army Corps of Engineers was in the business of understanding and managing floods. Sometimes extreme weather events overwhelmed human efforts at flood management, but typically the engineered environment and the massive infrastructure worked. Today, it appears that the additional impact of climate change is making extreme weather events more extreme, and the assumptions under which we built flood control infrastructure must now be reexamined and, in many cases, rebuilt.

Some might say that attempts to manage our environment are futile and we should abandon the effort. There is little question that these management efforts are far from cost free. In the past, the impact of water infrastructure on ecosystems was both misunderstood and, even when understood, often ignored. Modern environmental impact assessment provides some of the tools needed to develop more comprehensive and less destructive efforts at flood control. Given our investment in our communities and the infrastructure that they rely on, abandoning these places and giving up our efforts at managing flood waters is not a viable option.

But the climate resilient water management infrastructure we need is beyond the financial and technical capacity of state and local government. This was the case during the 20th century era of dam construction and it remains the case today. The ecological and engineering expertise needed to develop solutions to these problems and the financial means to implement those solutions requires an active federal government. We need the sort of federal government that paid for rural electrification during FDR’s New Deal, the one the delivered Colorado River water to the Southwest, and the one led by Dwight Eisenhower that funded the construction of the interstate highway system. An activist federal government is needed to address flood management in the United States.

Climate resiliency coupled with the decarbonization of our energy system could be accomplished under a single massive infrastructure and tax incentive investment effort. Farmers and young climate activists could join forces to save their future. Like the original New Deal, the Green New Deal could be a force unifying different sections of the nation and could cut across partisan divides. But it requires an active federal government. The Reagan, Trump and Tea Party formulation of government as a problem simply must be abandoned.

Unfortunately, after decades of decline, our civilian government must re-learn how to manage the construction of infrastructure projects. California’s high-speed rail, Honolulu’s elevated train system, and New York’s East Side Access Long Island Rail Road project are all examples of massive cost overruns due to mismanaged construction contracts. We regulate government construction and are a more crowded country today than we were during FDR’s New Deal. There were no environmental impact statements or multi-national design and construction firms in the 1930s and 1940s. The Green New Deal can’t simply throw money at infrastructure projects; they must be carefully planned and managed. The construction, finance and management of these projects requires public-private partnerships and private contractors managed by competent and well-trained government project managers. This type of government competence will cost money and will require that the federal government cease its ridiculous practice of shutting down for symbolic political battles. To build energy, water, transportation, and climate resilience infrastructure, we will need to invest in training and rewarding public project and contract managers. We also need to streamline the internal regulations that slow down government purchasing, site selection, design and construction.

If we fail to get our act together, the impact on our communities and economy will be devastating. We will be so busy patching potholes, we’ll never find the resources to rebuild our roads. Hurricanes will continue to pummel our coasts, forests in the west will continue to burn, and Midwestern farms will keep getting flooded. It takes a community-wide effort to build more resilient infrastructure and to rebuild damaged communities. Climate-induced damage is not going to fade with time; instead, we will see growing impacts. New York Times reporter John Schwartz recently filed a story reporting that 25 states were likely to be hit by serious floods this spring. According to Schwartz:

“Vast areas of the United States are at risk of flooding this spring, even as Nebraska and other Midwestern states are already reeling from record-breaking late-winter floods, federal scientists said on Thursday. Nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 states will have an elevated risk of some flooding from now until May, and 25 states could experience “major or moderate flooding,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration … much of the United States east of the Mississippi River, as well as parts of California and Nevada — in total, areas home to more than 200 million people — could see at least some flooding in the spring…”

The ideological battle over climate change focuses on the causes of these floods, which needs to be understood if we are to realistically plan infrastructure. For climate change deniers, these floods are seen as unusual natural occurrences that may not recur. The implications for infrastructure may be relatively minor for these folks. Obviously, I find that conclusion dangerously delusional. Most federal government scientists understand the impact of climate on extreme weather. According to Schwartz’s reporting in the New York Times:

“More rainfall in the Midwest is a predictable consequence of climate change, according to the most recent National Climate Assessment, which was produced last year by 13 federal agencies. A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, which comes down as precipitation.”

I often make the point that if an emergency happens all the time, it is no longer an emergency but a regular occurrence. Over the past week, President Trump issued disaster declarations for parts of Nebraska and Iowa. This ad-hoc method of recovery and reconstruction will grow and costs will continue to increase. Reconstruction needs to become a more routine process funded by a tax-supported trust fund that is accessed routinely, without presidential declarations or congressional appropriations. To reduce the costs of climate-induced impacts, we must build more climate resilient infrastructure and lead a worldwide effort to decarbonize our economy. All of this requires a concerted effort by a revitalized, competent federal government.

I don’t expect to see such a federal government emerge during this period of ideological division and dysfunction in Washington. Our larger states such as California and New York will provide some testbeds to pilot programs that could go national when a functioning federal government reemerges. My attraction to the concept of a Green New Deal is that just as FDR’s New Deal emerged out of the crisis of the Great Depression, the Green New Deal may well emerge as a response to the increasingly obvious climate crisis of the 21st century. The recognition that such a crisis exists is growing in heartland states such as Nebraska and Iowa as farmers contend with huge financial and personal loss due to recent floods.

People under 30 years of age already see the crisis. The political base for a climate consensus is now emerging and it should become more important during the 2020 presidential campaign. The reality of breadlines and downward mobility was undeniable during the Great Depression. The climate crisis is less dramatic, but is becoming more visible as impacts accumulate. Midwestern floods, Western forest fires, and coastal hurricanes are creating a call for climate resilient infrastructure. The Green New Deal is a way to respond to that demand.

This article was originally published on Dr. Steven Cohen’s State of the Planet blog at The Earth Institute.