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Midwestern Floods, Climate Resiliency, and the Green New Deal

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.

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upmanu lall
upmanu lall
5 years ago

Steve Cohen succinctly captures the issue at hand.
” 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 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.”

The battle over who is right on climate change is a pointless one. Change is incontrovertibly detected in the incidence of loss, in part due to higher population and economic activity and in part due to environmental changes. People in dense and people in sparsely populated areas are increasingly affected. They all want help and band aids will not cut it. The war and the spending that goes with needs to come home, to make/keep America great. Greatness lies in the ability to uphold the virtues that make this country an attraction for all. As Steve says, a concerted effort at the federal level is needed. Politics is not and will not be relevant if it continues to chase the kind of issues it has, instead of meeting the needs of the populace.

Evan
Evan
5 years ago

I agree with the major idea of this article, in that a strong and efficient federal system with technical expertise is needed to help mitigate increasingly extreme weather events. Hopefully the days of shortsighted Army Corps’, Reclamation’s and TVA’s pork barrel infrastructure projects are behind us, as planning is made for the future. Though perhaps they can be forgiven for not anticipating 100 year floods with increasing frequency in the new climate regime.

Where I take issue here is the notion that “Reconstruction needs to become a more routine process,” as a perpetuation of the status quo. When regarding resiliency we lump climate deniers on the extremist end of the spectrum yet at the other end would be the idea that, with a streamlined federal system, we can continue to rebuild perpetually as a form of resiliency. In many places, this will be the only option, New York City for example. There exists an opportunity with this optimistic view for the future of the federal government, not of one that merely spends efficiently and routinely, but one that makes hard decisions with great foresight. What will be reconstructed and where should be the central question of this approach. Take New Jersey’s Restore the Shore campaign which seeks to rebuild after superstorm Sandy, but to what end? It of course must be added the rampant misuse of FEMA dollars on the Jersey shore is one part of a deeply inequitable system that must be done away with. The hurricanes will keep coming and federal dollars can’t be allowed to be spent wastefully on shore houses, though the working class towns of the shore have suffered most of all.

The natural development of cities are temporally linked between geography and technology, historically, of natural deep water harbors, terrain suitable for railways, steaming up river, etc. Though cities will never be free of the constraints of geography, the ties between location and geography might be reconsidered with the present technical ability, lest New Orleans face recurring destruction and reconstruction. A federal system that might spend emergency disaster funds efficiently would be one that helps mitigate the incidence of those disasters in the first place, in the name of resiliency. Can resiliency occur in a cash-strapped public sector with massive infrastructure projects, such as New York City’s much needed sea wall, despite huge costs? In the Midwest, is the answer truly to build larger dams and expedite recovery, or to relocate, with federal support, as a means of resiliency? Crippled infrastructure projects all over the country are signs that costs badly need to be reigned in and for efficiency to rise; part of this will be the relocation of peoples in places of increasing climate threat. This strong activist government so proposed will require the leadership to relocate, through buyouts and planning, of farmers in flood prone areas and urbanites in perpetually flooding neighborhoods. I believe this requires a rethinking of the obligation the federal government has towards providing the service of rebuilding against what is fiscally sustainable in the new regime. Not only is this option more sustainable but offers opportunity, the re-greening flood-prone areas and a healthier respect for natural systems, one where we choose to live around nature instead of conquering it with ever larger dams. I am not advocating for the wholesale relocation of cities and towns, being both politically impossible and unfeasible, but in the wake of natural disasters, opportunities exist to create the foundation for a new, resilient infrastructure.