March 25, 2021
Dissimilar in most ways, two American cities — one in Virginia and the other in Nevada — are already experiencing clear and distressing impacts of climate change. And in both cities, public officials welcome the climate change initiatives of the new Biden administration.
"Hope," says George Homewood, FAICP, the director of planning in Norfolk, Virginia, when asked what he sees in President Joe Biden's climate agenda. "There's hope that somebody in DC finally gets it and hope that there will be funding for resilient infrastructure, hope that there will be funding for additional science and research, and hope that it becomes a priority of the federal government to work with states and localities to deal with the individual impacts of climate change," he says.
Tidal flooding, normally a once or twice-monthly nuisance, is projected to occur once or twice daily between 2045 and 2050 as warming temperatures expand oceans already augmented by melting glaciers, says Homewood. Norfolk, famous for its naval shipyards, largest in the world, hopes for federal aid to enable several resilience projects to mitigate impacts of tidal surges.
"If funding were to become available, we would be able to move out in a relatively short time frame," he adds.
Climate change can also be detected in Reno, the Nevada city whose 250,000 residents in recent years have too often coughed and wheezed from the smoke produced by more frequent and larger wildfires, some on the city's edges. And then there's the heat, a 6.2 degree Fahrenheit increase since the 1970s, capped by the 10 hottest summers in recorded history, all in the last 15 years. Urbanization's heat-island effect likely explains some of that warming, but not all. The city has a climate action plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030.
But more than federal programs, Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve points to the words Biden uses.
"What your president says matters," she declares. If a president says climate change is a hoax, that works against local action. But while campaigning, Biden called for "ambition on an epic scale" to meet the "greatest challenge facing our country and the world." He described the environment and economy as "completely and totally connected."
Under Biden, the oars of communities like Norfolk and Reno and the federal government now seem to be pointed in the same direction.
Action so far
Within his first few months in office as president, Biden quickly restored actions of former President Barack Obama that had been reversed by former President Donald Trump, such as reinstating the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard that requires federally funded infrastructure, including hospitals and water-treatment plants, to be built with higher margins of safety against extreme floods and sea level rise.
He also once again halted the Keystone pipeline, re-entered the Paris climate accord, and paused leasing of federal lands for fossil fuels. He has ordered federal agencies to revisit standards related to fuel efficiency, airplane emissions, and efficiency in appliances and buildings, and he's sent a clear signal to auto-manufacturers with his goal of retrofitting government fleets with electric fleets and installing 500,000 vehicle charging stations nationwide.
But Biden's broader climate change agenda will require legislation, which could get tricky. During his campaign, he promised a $2 trillion, 10-year "Build Back Better" infrastructure program. Beyond bridges and roads, this program seeks to invest heavily in technologies and capabilities to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A clean electricity standard would phase out use of fossil fuels in generation of electrical, now at 63 percent, by 2035. The U.S. is to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and a 100 percent clean energy economy by 2050. Both are more ambitious goals than even those of California, New York, and other cutting-edge states.
Achieving this goal would require upgrading the nation's electrical transmission. One study estimates that $100 million will be needed to upgrade the electrical transmission system to accommodate renewables supplies and meet the needs of building and transportation electrification.
A 981-page bill, the CLEAN Future Act, contains most of what Biden has talked about. Included would be a $100 billion national green bank to leverage public money for investments in new technologies. But with the Democratic majority in the Senate razor thin, this may require legislative strategies to get Republican support. One possible avenue is to incorporate provision into the transportation reauthorization bill, which is up for renewal in September.
Planning consultant Dan Reuter, FAICP, former manager of community development for the Atlanta Regional Commission, expects the Biden climate agenda to be snuggled into many and various bills. In Georgia, he says, every climate proposal has to be packaged as economic development. Even building retrofits have to be sold as jobs. Despite the election of two Democratic senators, he says, it's still a conservative state.
At the National Association of State Energy Officials, David Terry, the executive director, constantly must find the common ground among conservative and liberal states. He reports seeing a Biden administration raising the bar of climate hope but giving the states flexibility to achieve the expectations. The federal government will also be crucial in advancing policies to allow renewable energy develop on public lands and in coordinating the new transmission and electrical grid that many see as crucial to decarbonizing the economy.
Biden's climate change priority can readily be seen in his appointees. Former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy heads the office of White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, a new post. She is to coordinate climate-related policy across every government agency and Congress. Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, a champion of the clean energy transition, will run the Department of Energy. Tom Vilsack, returning as secretary of agriculture, a post he held for eight years under Obama, spent the last four years promoting opportunities for farmers in a carbon-constrained world. And then Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who made climate change central to his own presidential campaign, has been installed as transportation secretary.
"I am excited what Buttigieg is proposing in transportation, less reliance on automobiles and highways and focusing more on infrastructure, to support pedestrians and bicycle travel."
—Karen Wolf, FAICP, senior policy analyst for the King County (Washington) Office of Performance, Strategy and Budget
Buttigieg draws praise from many planners and elected officials. He's a "guy who has a local resume and local experience who can talk the language of mayors," says Whit Blanton, FAICP, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the metropolitan planning organization for Pinellas County on Florida's gulf coast. "I think we need more of that influence in our transportation policy and less state department of transportation influence."
From his office in St. Petersburg, largest among the Pinellas County's 32 cities and towns, Blanton sees specific policy propels to advance alternatives. "That is what transportation officials like me have been wanting to see for 10 years or more," he says. "We can't continue this automobile dependence."
In new infrastructure, the Biden administration's climate change agenda overlaps with social justice efforts, an intent to right past wrongs. The White House says a government-wide Justice40 Initiative has the goal of delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities and tracks performance toward that goal through a new Environmental Justice Scorecard.
In Pinnelas County, interstate highways constructed in the 1960s separate a predominantly Black community, an inequity that festers still. Biden has promised to address historical inequities to racial minorities and those of less affluence in federal funding, including for climate projects.
In Nevada, Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones sees much the same thing — and it excites him. He reports that federal grant opportunities already advertised, typically reserved for large infrastructure, mention both environmental justice and climate as guiding criteria. They represent what Jones describes as a "fantastic opportunity" for metropolitan Las Vegas, which has a population of 2.3 million people sprawled across the Mojave Desert, largely unknitted by the light-rail systems that the civic peers of Las Vegas — Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Denver — already have.
"Let's face it, Las Vegas has a lot of work to do on that," he says.
In Seattle, that's the same takeaway for Karen Wolf, FAICP, senior policy analyst for the King County Office of Performance, Strategy and Budget. "I am excited what Buttigieg is proposing in transportation, less reliance on automobiles and highways and focusing more on infrastructure, to support pedestrians and bicycle travel," she says. Her county of 2.5 million people has rising threats from both sea level rise and wildfires, the impacts of both coming more quickly than previously projected, she says.