Green New Deal? Let's work on environmental security first

The same week that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez on food assistance cuts: 'If this happened then, we might've just starved' Youth climate activists grade top 2020 Democrats on Green New Deal commitment Sanders to join youth climate strikers in Iowa MORE (D-N.Y.) introduced her Green New Deal,  the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hosted a summit encouraging investment in infrastructure. A blend of the two ideas — concern for the environment and investment in infrastructure — might yield a surprisingly positive alliance of strange bedfellows. Done right, it could generate a lot of wins for many different constituencies.

According to the World Bank, disaster response costs have almost doubled every decade since the 1980s. Disaster response is one of the fastest-growing public costs society face today, in terms of damaged housing and critical infrastructures. Weather-related disasters in 2017 cost $300 billion, equal to what the United States agreed to spend on its entire surface transportation from 2015 to 2020. In other words, we scrimp before disasters and then have to pay out huge amounts after disasters — a horrible case of being penny wise and pound foolish.


If a terrorist attack in America destroyed a million cars or displaced 200,000 people, we would have declared war on the perpetrators. Yet, that’s exactly what Hurricanes Harvey and Maria did; they were like weather bombs. So why do we tend to be so passive and reactive in the face of natural disasters, compared to human ones?

Investing in resilient infrastructure is a defense strategy that must be a part of our environmental security policy agenda. This is a big pivot away from the consumption-oriented strategies (e.g. carbon tax, cap and trade, etc.) that environmental groups have tended to favor until now, but it should have much more bipartisan appeal. Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires, droughts and earthquakes are visceral, local, recurring and inevitable. They don’t require global cooperation; they require that we take care of ourselves.

If the levees hadn’t failed, flooding in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina would have been much less severe. A $1 billion seawall under discussion might have saved New York $19 billion in damages after Superstorm Sandy. The “Ike Dike” being designed to protect Houston and Galveston might prevent future hurricanes from wreaking tens of billions of dollars in damages to the region, as Ike and Harvey did.

We know that hurricanes typically hit 16 states, from Texas to New England. We know that the West Coast and the Memphis-St. Louis corridor are vulnerable to major earthquakes. We know the major drought, wildfire and flood zones across the country. We know the location and state of vulnerable infrastructures, thanks to the American Society of Civil Engineers. We also know that $1 spent on resilience and mitigation can save up to $7 in post-disaster recovery costs. We should not be surprised when extreme events happen, but we constantly are.

Infrastructure investments also are needed to avoid bridge collapses such as the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, to protect against another water crisis like that in Flint, Mich., to shore up dams, and ward off cyber attacks and other avoidable disasters.

The silver lining is that the more that we invest in infrastructure, the more competitive we are likely to become globally. Plus, we will facilitate the accessibility and diffusion of needed services across communities, and between and among rural and urban areas.

Say that we were able, because of infrastructure investments, to increase our exports by just 10 percent. That would be an increase of more than $200 billion a year in revenue for American workers and businesses. Say that our infrastructure investments helped to “smarten” our cities and accelerate the internet of things. Who knows how much growth could result?


Market forces already are bending toward more resilience and sustainability. Many businesses have developed their own sustainability programs. Chambers of commerce, from Hampton Roads to the San Francisco Bay Area, are deeply concerned about the threat of rising sea level. Organizations such as the Global e-Sustainability Initiative have laid out roadmaps for market-based cleaner, smarter economies by 2030. The insurance and reinsurance industries have every incentive to help reduce regional risk profiles as well.

States across the U.S. get it. Louisiana would love to have its lost wetlands. Northern Colorado, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Minot, N.D., Nashville, Tenn., and Cairo, Ill., all have had 500-year floods in recent years. Texas has recorded unprecedented rainfall and unprecedented drought. Mother Nature has been an equal opportunity threat to both red states and blue states.

To be sure, any infrastructure policy that does emerge must be carefully evaluated. Critics will say that infrastructure spending can contribute to the worst kind of pork, such as Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.” There also will be concerns about financial sustainability and impacts on the national debt. This is why market-based solutions and public-private partnerships must be a core part of infrastructure policy. We need to avoid “tragedy of the commons” failures, unintended environmental policy failures, and infrastructure white elephants.

Climate change is an enormously complex subject. Somewhere along the way, the debate went off the rails and became partisan and poisonous. A reset is badly needed.

A proactive environmental security agenda that is sensitive to climate adaptation requirements, and that invests in resilient and sustainable infrastructure as a centerpiece strategy, just makes sense. Given how much suffering has happened across the country because of weather, climate, geological and other shocks over the past 40 years, investing in resilient infrastructure should be an agenda that generates bipartisan support.

Stephen Jordan is CEO of the Institute for Sustainable Development. He works on community development and disaster recovery challenges in the United States and overseas. Follow him on Twitter @scjordan.