American taxpayers are spending billions of dollars to fight climate change with more renewable energy. But is putting all our eggs in this basket distracting us from other important opportunities to prepare for a hard-to-predict future climate? Even if renewables achieve everything their proponents hope for and more, we may still fall short if they come at the cost of investing in strategic infrastructure that could alleviate destructive events.
Strategic infrastructure includes public and private works that produce significant health, safety, economic, and environmental benefits. A prominent example is the multi-measure Dutch strategy for flood control in a country where more than half the land is below sea level or at risk of flooding. In Michigan, the Mackinac Bridge provides economic, health and safety benefits, especially during harsh weather conditions, by linking the two peninsulas. The water infrastructure Detroit built in the first half of the 20th century helped eliminate chronic waterborne typhoid epidemics. The Soo Locks are similar: essential to commerce on Great Lakes waterways.
But there are serious impediments to building new strategic infrastructure today, such as big up-front costs, mind-boggling bureaucratic and legal hurdles, and knee-jerk objections to potential environmental impacts. We must break through these barriers in order to build critical infrastructure that can mitigate the impacts of serious weather events.
A market-based approach is vital for innovation. Thanks to constant innovation, we are far better equipped to build environmentally-conscious strategic infrastructure today than we were several generations ago, and light years ahead of where we were a century ago. Betting all America’s chips on renewable energy, in and of itself, will not save the world.
Strategic infrastructure can harden power grids by replacing weak systems with smarter technology and establishing protective buffer zones for delivering reliable energy. Proactive forest management can bring more useful resources to market while preserving land and protecting energy infrastructure. The Dutch model of physical barriers and pumps can alleviate chronic flooding. Innovation-driven water treatment can make use of lower-quality water in dry areas. Long-distance fossil fuel conveyance, with newer technologies to detect and protect against loss of product, is a smart strategic investment. Maintaining road infrastructure is increasingly expensive; investments in better, smarter, and fewer roads may be the answer in the age where many work from home and we enjoy real-time GPS routing to destinations.
“There is not a single product I am aware of in [Huntsman Corp.’s] entire portfolio of products that today consumes more energy, more raw materials to make the same product we made five years ago,” Huntsman Corp. CEO Peter Huntsman told a reporter in a recent Wall Street Journal piece. “Because if there’s such a product, our competition would’ve replaced it by now.”
Huntsman noted one highly visible environmental improvement in his home town. “I grew up in Los Angeles,” he told the Journal. “I went back many years later, and I could see the San Gabriel Mountains from the home I grew up in. I don’t remember ever seeing mountains in the home I grew up in.”
Michigan has a similar example in the Detroit River’s dramatic rehabilitation. Cleaner air, water, and habitats are now the norm in America rather than being anomalies. Strategic infrastructure played a big role in these dramatic improvements.
Sadly, strategic infrastructure is rarely considered today as a serious alternative. Media and prominent influencers take their cue from loud advocacy groups and other organizations with an interest in convincing us that renewable energy generation is our only responsible tool. Corporate and public leaders take the path of least resistance by blaming every problem on climate change rather than examining the adequacy of protective infrastructure. In the meantime, wildfires, droughts, floods, storms, and inadequate infrastructure wreak havoc in communities across the country and around the world.
We need to balance renewable energy generation and strategic infrastructure, but this will require public support and political leadership. Policies that expedite strategic infrastructure are critical. Are policymakers and the public up for the challenge?
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