Climate change tied to nation's infrastructure needs
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In what’s become a troublingly common occurrence, the combination of extreme weather and crumbling infrastructure threatened the residents of another American community in California not long ago. Extensive rainfall in Northern California damaged the spillway of the Oroville Dam – the nation’s tallest – and threatened numerous communities below the dam with massive flooding. 

As The Atlantic reported on Feb. 13, “drought, climate change, and aging infrastructure combined to create a looming catastrophe.” Nearly 200,000 residents were forced to flee their homes. Families scrambled to find shelter, gas stations were gridlocked, and stores ran low on supplies. Residents, given mere minutes to evacuate, worried whether their homes would be standing by week’s end.

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It now appears this crisis was averted, but these kinds of weather extremes and their impacts on our aging infrastructure are becoming more and more common, and the causes are not mysterious. Scientists are documenting a rise in extreme weather events across the United States in response to a warming climate, and Congress has failed to make needed investments in our infrastructure for decades.

What we saw in Oroville should push Congress to understand not just why our infrastructure – the humble roads, dams and bridges we keep hearing about – needs a massive upgrade, but why the risks to that infrastructure are getting worse. Building taller dams or replacing washed-out roads without acknowledging why they keep failing is a recipe for very expensive disasters.

In 1980, when the federal government began collecting data on the number of billion-dollar climate disasters every year, there were only three with losses exceeding $1 billion. In 2016, there were 15 climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion across the United States.

Climate change does not just mean more days with record high temperatures. It means all kinds of extreme weather events will become more frequent and more severe as the planet continues to warm. Floods will become more devastating. Wildfires will burn hotter. Droughts will last longer and affect new areas.

Those fleeing the possible flooding in California were by no means the first climate refugees. Over the past 10 years, the Isle de Jean Charles community in Louisiana has lost two-thirds of its residents to dislocation because of rising sea levels. On Washington's Olympic Peninsula, the Quinault Indian Nation must rely on a 2,000-foot-long sea wall for protection until it can complete its move uphill. In Alaska, climate change flooding and shoreline erosion already affect more than 180 villages, 31 of which are in “imminent” danger of becoming uninhabitable.

If we continue with business as usual, roughly 13 million Americans could become climate refugees by the end of the century. Avoiding this future for our kids and grandkids will require the United States to take decisive action now. Unfortunately, standing in the way is a fact-averse President Trump who calls climate change a Chinese hoax and a Republican Party addicted to campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry.

Just this month, Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee voted against even acknowledging that human activity is a major contributor to climate change. As long as Republicans in Washington decide they would rather do the bidding of the same old corporate interests and big oil lobbyists than work with Democrats to reduce carbon pollution, climate change will continue to get worse.

More than 70 percent of Americans acknowledge that global warming is happening and more than 90 percent of published climate scientists believe human activity is the primary cause. Scientists tell us that carbon pollution is causing the climate to change 170 times faster than natural forces. Yet President Trump and Republicans in Congress continue to ignore the problem and push an extreme agenda that tips the scales on behalf of the fossil fuel industry and special interests.

It’s long past time to get past phony debates about the existence of climate change and get to work on serious climate solutions. This will mean establishing pollution limits and moving away from dirty energy sources that pollute our climate, air, and water.

And if the Trump administration is serious about a bipartisan infrastructure package, they and Congressional leaders must be willing to invest real money and admit that our changing climate is one of the most serious challenges we face. The longer we wait, the more we can get used to seeing the sights we witnessed in California.

Grijalva is ranking member of House Natural Resources Committee and represents Arizona's 3rd District.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.