Biden must build back greener for a post-pandemic recovery
President Joe Biden is expected to unveil his “Build Back Better” infrastructure plans this week, his economic vision for the future. The plan, which could cost as much as $4 trillion, would support building roads and bridges, tackling climate change and resolving domestic policy issues like income equality. But, if the president truly wants to tackle climate change, a “green recovery” needs to be front and center.
As a climate specialist with more than 25 years of experience in environmental risk reduction and problem-solving across government, civil and private sectors in the U.S,, I’ve seen why Biden’s plan must go beyond just investing in renewables. It must address the climate crisis while creating solutions for the country’s economic and social issues, something that is entirely possible.
Green solutions and economic solutions are not separate. Biden has the unique opportunity to build back not just “better” but greener and more equitably, without taking away from roads, bridges, better internet, new schools, etc. In fact, tackling climate change is an answer to economic recovery and building a more resilient America.
Let’s look at some examples.
Natural hazards like flooding, forest fires, drought and landslides pose significant threats to communities across the United States. Traditional “grey infrastructure” is still critically important. But how are we building new roads and bridges to be even greener as well? Our stormwater solutions can include a hybrid mix of concrete and wetlands. Ports must go green, with less reliance on fossil fuels. We know that nature provides the first line of defense and fights climate change — and we should be using her services to the fullest.
As we repair roads and bridges along our coasts, we must include an ecosystem buffer between vulnerable communities and the sea. Marshlands, oyster reefs, mangroves and coral reefs, dampen storm surge and protect communities against sea-level rise- and they require no repairs. Wetland and riparian zones can absorb floodwaters, increasing productivity for farmers. Think how better off Houston, Texas would have fared in Hurricane Harvey if some of those concrete roads had been retained as a marshland buffer.
Nature-based solutions will create jobs, reduce risk and cost associated with natural hazards, sequester carbon, increase property values, improve air quality and water supply, just to name a few. Prior to the pandemic ecosystem restoration in the U.S. provided direct employment for 126,000 workers and generated USD $9.5 billion in economic output annually. It created a further 95,000 indirect jobs and USD $15 billion in household spending. By investing in nature, especially if directly linked to Biden’s new infrastructure investment, we can create even more jobs and the kind of economic benefits and environmental sustainability that we need right now.
Building back green also provides an opportunity for tackling social equity. The pandemic exposed huge inequalities based on race and gender, fueling tensions, divisions and violence. These inequities lie at the heart of climate-change challenges today too. If we build back and invest in the “usual way” we will only recreate the same inequities. Building back typically provides funding to large corporations and individuals who have the resources to secure the grants and investments. Instead, Biden should consciously create opportunities for the historically under-represented to benefit from financial investments and to have a seat at the table — women and minority businesses, young entrepreneurs, indigenous communities all of whom are typically left out.
Many of these underrepresented communities are also associated with traditional natural resource-based industries- fisheries, farming and forestry for instance. If we focus substantial investments in sustainable agriculture and the rapidly emerging blue economy (sustainable use of marine resources for economic growth, job creation and ecosystem health) we can leverage under-valued industries and communities to fuel economic recovery, while combating climate change.
In recent years, the U.S. has lagged in its investment in green solutions that reduce climate risks and benefit many Americans. As we come out of this pandemic, Biden has an opportunity — but a very narrow window —to get it right. The perfect solution is available; it’s time to make it a reality.
Deborah Brosnan, Ph.D., is an environmental scientist and a marine resilience specialist, working to bolster science in decision-making involving the environment, endangered species, energy development, sea-level rise, climate change and environmental hazards.