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How Trump’s new infrastructure plan will hurt local climate action

Cities are at risk for climate disasters today and Trump’s plan puts them in more danger

Flooding in Miami Beach due to climate change has forced the city to embark upon a $400 million infrastructure effort to protect its citizens.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the first few minutes of a press conference that no one will remember for its talk about highways and bridges, President Donald Trump announced the first details of his “infrastructure bill.” But the several policies he outlined will not only push the U.S. further away from meeting its climate goals, they will be downright dangerous for cities.

With Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao at his side, Trump touted an executive order signed Tuesday which is meant to streamline the permitting and construction process for new infrastructure projects. Holding a scroll of paper which illustrated an unnamed 17-year approval process for a highway project, Trump claimed the same project could be completed in two years. “No longer will we allow the infrastructure of our magnificent country to crumble and decay, while protecting the environment we will build gleaming new roads, bridges, railways, waterways, tunnels, and highways.”

Besides the emphasis on car-centric infrastructure that will increase emissions and contribute to the greenhouse gases known to cause climate change, environmentalists are worried because the order specifically recommends fast-tracking oil pipelines, which will deliver even more climate-devastating fossil fuels to U.S. cities.

Here’s an even more concerning part. Trump wants to roll back the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which was launched by President Barack Obama in 2015. The regulations require consulting with scientists before building any new infrastructure in areas which may be more vulnerable to coastal storms, inland flooding, and sea-level rise. The claim by Trump’s team is that getting rid of the standards will help businesses thrive and create jobs. Instead, ignoring these risks would create situations which are potentially deadly for the people who live and work in these flood-prone cities.

Flooding has become one of the most devastating extreme weather events facing U.S. cities—and it’s getting worse. Of the 15 billion-dollar disasters that the country experienced last year, four were inland flood events and eight were severe storm events. Both types of disasters have been directly attributed to climate change, and both types of disasters have increased in frequency over the last decade.

One need only look at the headlines of the past few weeks to see how the frequency and intensity of such events affects cities. Earlier this month, as much as 10 inches of rain fell in parts of New Orleans in a single day, breaking historical records in many neighborhoods. And in Miami, which has been home to several extreme flooding events this year already, a combination of heavy downpours and high tides paralyzed Miami Beach.

In fact, “more intense rainstorms” was cited as one of the major risks facing the U.S. in a comprehensive climate change report prepared by scientists from 13 federal agencies. As the New York Times reported, the study claims that much of the U.S. is already feeling the effects of climate change and the country needs to act quickly to safeguard itself against impending climate disasters. The deadline for the federal government to acknowledge the report is today, and, as many have noted, most top officials in Trump’s cabinet are unlikely to approve the report as they don’t think that human activity causes climate change.

There was even more to be concerned about in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual weather report, released last week. Not only was 2016 the hottest year on record by nearly every metric, from surface temperatures to global sea level, the report specifically points to an uptick in “extreme moisture” events due to increased greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the one agency that might be able to enforce a sweeping effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—the Environmental Protection Agency—is also busy eliminating its own regulatory structure. At Vox, David Roberts writes about how EPA director Scott Pruitt is quietly dismantling the agency from the inside out. Like the motivation behind Trump’s so-called infrastructure plan, Pruitt claims removing regulations will be better for business and the economy. But in reality, these actions are more likely to endanger lives.

Of course, cities have already made their own commitments to combat climate change by making renewable energy pledges and embarking upon mass transit projects. And because these city leaders are experiencing climate disasters first-hand, it is likely that they will ignore Trump administration recommendations and continue to use input from scientists to decide on where and what to safely build.

Support for the federal infrastructure plan itself might be dwindling. As Bloomberg reported last night, Trump’s infrastructure council has been disbanded, as have two other advisory councils. This leaves the roles of New York City developers Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth, who were tapped to lead the council, uncertain. (Elon Musk had already stepped down from his role advising the president after Trump withdrew from the Paris agreement.)

Perhaps the most promising part of Tuesday’s announcement is that besides this permitting news, Trump’s long-promised $1 trillion infrastructure program still has no details, no funding, no bill attached. For now, it’s still all just talk.

Update: As of Saturday, August 19, the Trump administration dissolved the federal climate change committee which was managing the report. However, as NOAA communications director Julie Roberts told the Washington Post: “this action does not impact the completion of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which remains a key priority.”