The US needs a National Resilience Act
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Americans keep waiting for Godot when it comes to the long-promised Infrastructure bill - a bill that always seems just around the corner but never quite makes an appearance. Voters wait for it, media pundits talk about it, lobbyists try to mold it, and yet it never comes. It didn’t even make it into the COVID-19 stimulus, the largest stimulus package ever passed by the U.S. Congress.

But if and when that infrastructure bill does appear, Americans need to make sure it has a string attached. It should require that taxpayer dollars only fund infrastructure designed to last. Without that condition enshrined in the language, the U.S. Treasury might as well just keep pouring more money down a bottomless pit. In the face of worsening climate change driven extremes—bigger wildfires, deeper droughts, more intense storms and heat waves, as well as sea-level rise—infrastructure built to withstand the conditions of the past just won’t hold up. We believe that requirement should be enshrined in a National Resilience Act as part of a comprehensive nationwide climate and security infrastructure initiative – one that would apply to all future federal investments.

The Department of Defense offers a good example of the benefits of this approach. The Defense Department, like the federal government, self-insures. It can’t just call its insurance company when disaster strikes, it has to pay for the damage on its own. When the Missouri River breached its levies and washed over a third of Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska in 2019, the Department had to pick up the tab for rebuilding. The Department also had to pick up the tab for the damage caused when Hurricane Michael swept over Tyndall Air Force Base on the panhandle of Florida in 2018 and when Hurricane Florence pummeled Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina the same year. In the space of just two years, those three disasters alone rang up a bill of roughly $10 billion. It makes sense going forward to build facilities in a way that minimizes damage and allows for continued operations. And that’s what the Department of Defense has committed to do.

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In the last administration, the Department started augmenting its building codes to ensure that new construction could withstand worsening climate change impacts. With bipartisan support, Congress passed new laws in 2018 and 2019 to amplify this effort, requiring, for example, the elevation of facilities at risk of flooding. As a result, the military now makes sure that it spends its budget on construction resilient to growing extremes in weather and sea-level rise.

In some instances, the decision to invest in resilience can even come at no additional cost. In fact, it can ultimately save billions. When the Department of Defense chose the site for its new billion-dollar Strategic Command Headquarters on Offutt Air Force Base, it chose a site at higher elevation to avoid damage from Missouri River flooding. Sure enough, the building avoided the billions of dollars of damage the rest of the base incurred due to major flooding in 2019.

Just making sure that the Department of Defense alone does it right, however, will not address the much broader threat to the nation from climate change impacts. Any future infrastructure bill will likely drive hundreds of billions of dollars, or perhaps even more, to projects around the country. To avoid wasting taxpayer dollars, each of those projects –at a minimum--should be designed to withstand the climate change impacts they will likely suffer during their service life. In other words, they should each be resilient to climate change. Any proposed infrastructure project supported by federal funding should undergo a review early in the design process to confirm that anticipated climate-driven threats—like new storm patterns, sea level rise, wildfires, permafrost thaw, and extreme heat or precipitation—will not render the project waste before its time.

The real lesson from DoD, however, is not just to focus on securing new money, but to apply these resilience requirements to all federal investments from now on, creating a growing stock of resilient infrastructure. This aligns with the reports from the federal government’s watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, which has repeatedly warned that the nation’s failure to account for worsening climate change impacts poses a high risk for the U.S. Treasury. The nation needs to ensure that all federally-funded investments—be they investments by the Small Business Administration, the Department of Transportation, or the Department of Housing and Urban Development and so on – are resilient.

A compelling solution is the creation of a National Resilience Act that would require federal departments and agencies to only use taxpayer money to invest in projects that are built to last. That includes whether they are funded through a stimulus bill, annual appropriations, or other infrastructure investment legislation. Our nation’s security and resilience will grow with funding we are already planning on spending, whether or not the infrastructure bill ever comes. This Act will ensure those dollars don’t wash away in the next storm.

John Conger is the Director of the Center for Climate and Security and the former Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller). Alice Hill is Senior Fellow for Climate Change Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, a member of the Council on Strategic Risks Governing Board, and former Senior Director for Resilience on the National Security Council staff.