Global warming enters infrastructure talks

Source: Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, November 30, 2018

As momentum builds for an infrastructure deal in the next Congress, a major new report is thrusting climate change into infrastructure talks on the Hill.

The second volume of the National Climate Assessment, a sweeping report produced by 13 federal agencies, warns that the lives and safety of Americans are already being harmed by climate change (Climatewire, Nov. 23).

The document came after leaders of both parties have signaled a willingness to collaborate on broad infrastructure legislation in the next Congress (E&E News PM, Nov. 7).

Climate change has largely been absent from those discussions. But during a hearing yesterday on surface transportation infrastructure, Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee repeatedly highlighted the report and the need to account for a warming planet.

“We cannot have a conversation about surface transportation without talking about climate change and the increasingly extreme weather that accompanies it,” ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) said in his opening statement.

“Our transportation sector is a major contributor to climate change, and our roads, bridges, and railways are also extremely vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather fueled by climate change,” Carper said, citing the assessment’s findings.

“Our next infrastructure bill must respond to this threat by focusing on a more resilient and sustainable transportation sector to protect communities nationwide,” he added.

The transportation and infrastructure section of the National Climate Assessment warns that roads, bridges and airports in coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including sea-level rise and extreme weather.

As an example of the challenges facing coastal communities, the report cites the impact of Superstorm Sandy in New England. During Sandy, storm tides of up to 14 feet flooded several tunnels, closing them for at least a week while floodwater was pumped out. The three major airports in the region also flooded, with LaGuardia closing for three days.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a potential presidential candidate in 2020, said yesterday that Sandy illustrated the need to build more resilient infrastructure.

“In the Northeast and in New York in particular, we’re faced with the challenge of aging infrastructure that has outlived its useful life and needs repair or replacement,” Gillibrand said.

“On top of that, climate change-fueled sea-level rise and extreme weather threaten to put our infrastructure at risk if we do not rebuild it in a more resilient way,” she added, citing the flooding and corrosion of the Hudson River rail tunnel during Sandy.

The National Climate Assessment also warns that warmer temperatures will place a strain on transportation infrastructure. For instance, pavement will deteriorate more quickly. Expansion joints on bridges will be stressed. And airplanes could have a harder time taking off, because when air warms, it becomes less dense.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a longtime climate hawk, noted that Arizona’s Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport was recently closed because of extreme heat.

“We’ve got to understand how dramatically the climate is changing. And if we’re going to build 30- or 40- or 50-year projects, we’ve got to be planning for the full life cycle of those projects,” Whitehouse said.

“Infrastructure is great,” he added. “But these peculiar and changing conditions that are driven by climate change and carbon emissions absolutely need to be taken into account.”

Still, Republicans on the EPW panel largely skirted the climate issue. They focused instead on the perennial question of how to pay for broad infrastructure legislation — a question that dogged Trump’s failed $1 billion infrastructure plan last year.

“I have to say that this has been a very disappointing hearing,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “I was hoping you would choose some magicians to come in here, perhaps some alchemists, to tell us how to stir a pot of lead, get it to the right temperature, and get it to silver and gold, and we wouldn’t actually have to pay for infrastructure.”

He added, “But here we’ve learned … that if we want to build roads and bridges and infrastructure, we have to come up with some revenue solutions to actually pay for this. So I’m just heartsick and disappointed that we’re having to go down this path.”

In an interview with E&E News after the hearing, Carper said he thought Republicans would care about incorporating climate concerns into an infrastructure package — they just might not use the term “climate change.”

“I think everybody’s especially concerned about it, whether you call it climate change or extreme weather,” the Democrat said.

Reporter Nick Sobczyk contributed.