Overcoming the Climate Justice Gap in Spending “Build Back Better” Billions

Completed $11.9-million Miami Beach “renourishment” project, 2017 (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

I love beaches as much as anyone. But how much should all Americans pay to “renourish” beaches, particularly in prosperous areas, all while facing centuries of rising seas with only the pace of the rise in question?

And how much will the country’s most vulnerable communities share in the tens of billions of dollars in spending for climate-resilient infrastructure coming under the recently-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (with more nigh if the Senate passes the Build Back Better Act)?

These are communities that also typically have the least capacity to seek government money.

And there’s an inherent bias in government (or corporate or philanthropic) investments toward projects and programs that are easy to measure using traditional means.

Think about a typical infrastructure project, gauged in cubic yards of beach sand or miles of levees. Then think about what you’d invest in to boost the resilience or adaptive capacity of a community that has been been prejudicially marginalized for generations and faces outsize danger from heat, flooding or other environmental hazards.

The difference, to me, is conveyed in these images — of the Maldonado family, one of thousands whose homes were swamped by Hurricane Ida in Louisiana, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “Operation Big Beach” project in Virginia:

Operation Big Beach has been deemed a grand success, estimated to have averted storm losses totaling more than three times its $143 million cost. That fits the longstanding requirement for such projects that they save more than they cost. That’s great. But such tallies implicitly favor places with the most physical or financial assets at stake.

The Maldonado family, in Barataria, Louisiana, and so many others battered by extreme events end up living in a long shadow of harms and costs — ranging from debt to interrupted childhood education.

As they took a boat to their trailer on August 31, Fusto Maldonado, the father, told Getty photographer Brandon Bell, “My family has lost everything and we’re now trying to find help. We all live in this area and now it’s all gone.” (I’ll try to track Maldonado down for an update.)

Where’s the ribbon-cutting ceremony or victory march for transforming their lives?

President Biden signed the infrastructure bill into law on Nov. 15. (White House photo)

These questions are fortunately getting scrutinized with new intensity as the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress slowly hash out the next phase of the president’s diminished, but still historic, investment in rebuilding America’s rusting, flooding, overheating, eroding foundations and communities.

Read the rest here (and subscribe if you like what you find).

Related dispatches:

To Spend Infrastructure Billions Without Worsening Climate Risks, “Unbuild” Back Better, Too

As Extreme Storms Strike Again, It’s Time to Shake out Community Climate Vulnerabilities

Behind Global “Climate Emergency” Rhetoric, Solvable Vulnerability Emergencies Abound

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Andy Revkin

Andy Revkin

Pursuing progress on a finite planet at @columbia @earthinstitute. The rest? Family, friends, books j.mp/revkinbooks, songs j.mp/revkinmusic