Building Infrastructure in the Era of Climate Change

NWF   |   February 9, 2018

“Infrastructure” is not just a Washington, D.C. buzzword. A well-funded infrastructure package has the potential to positively impact the lives of communities and wildlife around the country. But what would a wildlife-friendly infrastructure package look like? As Congress starts to work through this question, it is critical that they take a changing climate into account. There are a many ways in which this can be done, such as investing in clean energy and nature-based solutions. Infrastructure development can also fund wildlife conservation indirectly by creating corridors and enhancing wildlife habitat at a time when such improvements are desperately needed.

While there is a tremendous amount of opportunity for conservation victories, infrastructure development could pose new threats to wildlife and their habitat. An infrastructure bill that weakens the nation’s bedrock environmental protections—such as the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Clean Water Act—would be unacceptable. Americans and wildlife deserve nothing less than good-faith, bipartisan efforts to improve our aging infrastructure. Our nation can invest in its physical infrastructure without harming our rivers, streams, and wetlands.

If these threats are defeated and Congress begins to truly answer the question of what a 21st century plan should look like in the era of climate change, the below examples outline some of the best potential investments for wildlife and people.

Creating clean energy solutions

As our country’s leaders think about what an infrastructure package could look like, they must consider the pressing need to reduce carbon emissions from the energy and transportation sectors. They need to think about infrastructure in innovative ways that rely less on fossil fuels and incorporate clean energy solutions.

To start, we need a modern electricity grid. This grid should integrate renewable resources and be able to endure the damage wrecked by natural disasters, particularly hurricanes, that some scientists believe may increase in strength in coming decades.  It should also build out a climate-smart approach to transportation, such as smarter road designs, public and alternative transit options, and investments that encourage cleaner vehicles and cut carbon pollution. By reducing the largest sources of carbon emissions, we will be able to reduce the impacts of climate change in the long term. The investments we make matter for our communities and wildlife, today, tomorrow, and for years to come.

Strengthening our natural resources

While there are many steps we can take to reduce the future effects of climate change, we must also confront the climate-related challenges currently affecting the country. Persistent drought ravages the watersheds of some regions, while flooding increases in frequency and severity in other areas. Megafires and higher storm surge have decimated vulnerable prairie and coastal communities, the unencumbered spread of invasive species has threatened native wildlife, and the snow cover that many ecosystems depend on has become scarcer and scarcer.  It is essential that any proposed infrastructure package addresses these issues and incorporates solutions to mitigate these challenges to wildlife conservation.

For example, some of the wetlands and rivers that wildlife depend on are experiencing increasingly extreme rainfall and subsequent flooding. New infrastructure should be enhanced or redesigned entirely to account for the higher volume of water. One potential improvement is the expansion or retrofitting of culverts (pathways for water to flow under infrastructure) which can reduce flood risk while also acting as passageways for fish.

Brook Trout/Credit: Chesapeake Bay Program

Another conservation solution is the establishment of a national corridors system that allows wildlife to migrate with the changing seasons, boosts biodiversity in degraded ecosystems, and ensures they are better able to adapt to a changing climate.

An infrastructure package could fund management of wildlife corridors, and even enhance and extend this network. What would an expansion look like? It could consist of removing dams that don’t offer economic gains and act as barriers to native trout populations, building bridges over highways that block deer and pronghorn migrations, and creating culverts under roads that allow turtles to cross safely. A national corridor system is an important and long overdue investment in the long term health of wildlife populations.

Mule Deer, Credit: USFWS Mountain Prairie

Incorporate nature-based infrastructure solutions

The $81 billion disaster relief package recently passed by Congress includes a provision that requires rebuilding and recovery efforts to account for future risk. The infrastructure plan should incorporate the same common-sense provision. We should avoid encouraging new development in risky areas, such as flood-prone sites. We should also require the use of the best available science to better forecast and reduce those risks. It is critical that federal and state governments continue to invest in the climate science needed to evaluate current climate impacts, project future impacts, and develop innovative solutions to reduce those risks.

We should also take advantage of the ability of nature itself to serve as infrastructure.

Infrastructure doesn’t just mean roads and bridges, it also means wetlands, rivers, forests, and floodplains.  We must take advantage of these nature-based solutions when we look for ways to provide clean water, protect communities from flooding and storm surges, and filter toxics from polluted run-off.

This “green infrastructure” can provide needed services at a fraction of the cost of constructing, operating, and maintaining traditional “gray infrastructure.” As a result, it is essential that the conservation or restoration of natural systems capable of providing these services be eligible for funding in any infrastructure package — as is already the case in some states. Natural infrastructure can also be used in conjunction with traditional built infrastructure to produce better outcomes, for instance by coupling coastal marshes and sand dunes with structural protections for communities.

Piping Plover/Credit: USFWS

In addition to protecting wildlife habitat, natural systems also sequester and store carbon, which reduces the underlying driver of climate change. Research shows that conserving and restoring forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other natural vegetation can result in the absorption of significant amounts of atmospheric carbon. Some agricultural and forestry practices can also increase carbon in soil while boosting soil productivity and increasing resilience to floods and drought. This across the board solution reduces the impacts of climate change, protects wildlife, and stores carbon and should be strongly featured in any infrastructure package Congress puts forward.

Call on your members of Congress to address the growing impacts of climate change and invest in infrastructure that is ready to meet the challenges posed by an era of climate change.

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