Opinion: Federal policy, not litigation, will make local infrastructure climate-ready

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Flooding on Seacoast Drive during Royal Tide
Flooding at the south end of Seacoast Drive at Imperial Beach during a rising tide. Photo by Chris Helmer/City of Imperial Beach

For decades, experts have debated the impact of energy consumption, as well as other human activities, on the overall impact on the environment. From any perspective, as the population grows, the veracity of weather events seems to intensify with each report.

Given this reality, it is important that we take a holistic approach to building resilient infrastructure – one that is well coordinated and ensures that communities across the country can withstand these catastrophic events.

Federal agencies have already worked hard on this mission. They are leveraging federal funding and smart regulatory reviews to build or upgrade climate-smart infrastructure. Last year, President Biden signed into law his bipartisan Infrastructure Act, which provides states and localities with $47 billion in funding for climate resilience.

As this money is distributed to communities in the years to come, it will be the largest national investment ever in infrastructure resilience – an expected moment of bipartisan agreement in a particularly polarizing time of the story. With the federal government playing a leadership role, it will ensure that frontline communities are prioritized and that these communities coordinate with those around them.

At the center of this coordination is my former agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers. The corps very often takes the initiative to look at the impacts of infrastructure projects across the country. In recent years, he has been responsible for integrating “planning and actions for climate change preparedness and resilience into all activities”.

The body will also play a bigger role in preparing for climate change, as the aforementioned bipartisan Infrastructure Act provides $17.1 billion for projects and studies, more than four times the amount Congress has given the body. body last year for construction. To that end, the body notes that these investments will help local communities improve their resilience to better withstand significant weather events.

One of the most important aspects of this federal approach is that it helps ensure that projects in one jurisdiction do not significantly impact neighboring communities, the environment and even cultural sites. For example, if a community erects levees to protect its own streets and homes, it could make matters worse for communities downstream, whose residents will now have to bear the brunt of additional flooding during heavy storms. Water diverted from an area will be find its path of least resistance.

But this “go it alone” approach is exactly what some municipalities are undertaking. They are suing US energy companies to try to make companies pay for their infrastructure improvements, regardless of justification or impact on those around them. About two dozen jurisdictions, such as New York, Charleston, SC and Imperial Beach have filed these lawsuits.

This approach is flawed from at least two key angles. The first is funding. Making energy companies pay means we’re all going to have to pay higher prices for gas and electricity. Trials do not generate free money.

Lawyers in some municipalities have openly stated that their goal is to get everyone — including you and me — to pay more for oil and gas to generate the money needed to fund these government programs. It’s not fair to the wider American community. Every community has mitigation needs.

Second, and more concerning to me as an engineer, is that this beggar-thy-neighbour approach could have significant unintended consequences. As noted, if New York City prevails and forces companies to build levees around Manhattan, nearby communities across the East River or Hudson River could very well feel the pain. impact of increased flooding. This is why we need a highly coordinated approach led by the federal government.

Fortunately, no court allowed these cases to succeed. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, for example, dismissed New York City’s lawsuit. He said this litigation defies economic reality and asks state courts to do what Congress and federal agencies, like the Army Corps, are instructed to do. Moreover, these proposals do not really solve the problem. All these municipalities want is an endless piggy bank they can use – funded by the rest of us through higher energy prices.

Addressing and preparing for the impacts of climate change is important work and will require great cooperation between governments – at home and around the world. By using proven resources, like the nonpartisan, impartial, and science-based Army Corps of Engineers, we can significantly improve the resilience of our infrastructure. We shouldn’t bet our future on unproven and dangerous litigation that won’t meet the need — especially when it could actually make things worse for many Americans.

Tom Magness, a retired Army colonel, previously served as a commandant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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