We’ve all heard the line: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
Except, with the climate crisis, it’s kind of the other way around. We’re in a planet-sized hole – temperatures are rising and climate-fueled storms, droughts, and more are deepening inequity and injustice across the planet as inevitably people of color and poor families get hit the hardest.
So how do we get out? The answer, perversely, might be to start digging.
Because by rethinking and rebuilding our roads and infrastructure for the climate challenges coming our way – think stronger hurricanes, punishing blizzards, powerful floods just for starters – we can not only create resilient communities, but healthier and more equitable ones too. All while slashing emissions and accelerating the transition to the net-zero economy we need to avert climate catastrophe on a global scale.
Really. It’s what climate-smart infrastructure is all about.
On the (climate-smart) road again
The first thing to think about when we talk about climate-smart, or green, infrastructure might be the most obvious: updating our roads and bridges. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, infrastructure in the US gets a grade of just C-, with 43% of roads rated in poor or mediocre condition.
We can do better. And we have to – experts estimate that hundreds of unnecessary deaths are caused by poor infrastructure each year.
And if we’re upgrading our roadways, there’s no point in using the technology of the past. We need the climate-smart roads of the future.
That means roadways and bridges that are designed to handle the extreme weather of our changing climate.
It also means upgrading how we travel on these roads and bridges. Today, the transportation sector account for the single largest percentage of carbon emissions in the US, more than the power generation sector or industry. We can make a big dent in these emissions by creating electric vehicle pathways to enable clean-energy cars to go the distance safely. And by investing in public transportation infrastructure that reduces emissions and travel times.
These investments can transform our transportation grid into a modern network, designed to lower our impact on the climate and provide safer modes of travel for all.
High wages, low emissions
But green infrastructure isn’t just about roads and bridges. It’s about jobs. When the House of Representatives passed a $1.5 trillion green infrastructure package in 2019, it included funding for good-paying jobs in construction, engineering, and manufacturing, as well as support for small businesses and more.
That’s because investing in infrastructure that tackles the climate crisis head-on means investing in American workers. The dollars we invest in upgrading our critical infrastructure facilities can go right back into our communities in the form of good wages for local workers.
That includes jobs in communities that can’t be outsourced, and high-wage construction jobs that don’t require retraining. But it also means climate-smart engineering jobs and more revenue to small businesses. Because modernizing our infrastructure is going to take a whole-of-industry approach, and that’s a good thing.
Ask your doctor if green infrastructure is right for you
Fossil fuel pollution is driving the climate crisis – and a crisis in air pollution. Right now, the National Institutes of Health estimates that nine out of every 10 people living in an urban environment is affected by air pollution. And due to racist redlining policies across the US, the worst of the pollution is often centered in BIPOC communities.
This air pollution, including pollution from motor vehicle emissions, is linked to a variety of health issues. From cardiovascular disease to pregnancy complications and physical disabilities, the pollution that pours off our roads and freeways can have very real health implications.
But when we upgrade our infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions, we can protect local communities from pollution too. The ever-growing range of electric vehicles means less need for fossil fuel-powered vehicles. More robust carbon-free public transit means fewer cars on the road. And less pollution in the air means fewer emissions-related health issues.
No green infrastructure without environmental justice
These issues impact us all, but those impacts aren’t felt equally.
Fossil fuel pollution has a disproportionate impact on communities of color, often as a direct result of racist redlining policies and regulatory decisions. For decades, studies have confirmed that race more than any other factor is a reliable indicator of a person’s proximity to pollution. And as a result, 74 million people of color in the US live in a county with a failing pollution grade and Black people in America breathe 37% more nitrogen dioxide than their White counterparts.
In fact, our infrastructure system in the US was largely built without equity in mind, deepening long-standing racial and economic injustices. On the flip side, investing in green infrastructure has the potential to counter this trend and play a big role in creating a more equitable future.
We know we have to rethink our infrastructure. So let’s do it right.
It can mean small steps that add up, like getting more electric vehicles on the road so that communities of color pushed next to congested highways in urban centers don’t breathe as much pollution from gas-powered cars.
And it can mean bold and strategic investments like prioritizing long-term and high-wage infrastructure jobs for the communities most impacted by environmental injustice. Or public transit that eliminates transportation deserts and charging deserts, to give historically underserved communities equitable access to low-emission transit.
But no matter what options are on the table, these communities must have the right to determine for themselves which policies are enacted and where investments are directed.
Not rebuilding the low-emissions wheel
The best news in all of this is that we have solutions to these issues. And we’ve seen how they can work for communities across the world.
In Santiago de Chile, the government has invested in a fleet of hundreds of electric buses, the largest in the Americas, and paired them with dozens of high-tech charging stations along a major transportation pathway. The result? Latin America’s first electric corridor – and quieter, healthier rides for residents.
In New Orleans, a public partnership is using data to find hyper-local opportunities where green investments are most needed. And in Kolkata, India, civil society organizations have teamed up with academics to reframe the climate crisis as an opportunity for green investment and healthier communities.
So as we begin to rebuild our economy and update our infrastructure system, we can look to local examples of green infrastructure development for inspiration. After all, there’s no shame in copying ideas that work!
The bottom line
Our infrastructure is crumbling, working people need high-paying jobs, and communities impacted by environmental injustice need real equity. And green infrastructure can address all three areas.
But only if we invest in it now, and only if we demand it.
You can make a difference in driving this change by joining the Climate Reality Leadership Corps, a network of over 31,000 activists in more than 160 countries, all trained by former US Vice President Al Gore and working for just climate solutions in communities big and small around the world.
Start by registering for our upcoming Climate Reality Leadership Corps Virtual US Training. Registration for this free, online training is open now!
If you’re not in the United States, be sure to sign up to be the first to hear when registration begins for our virtual global training and our virtual Latin America training, coming later this this year!
Because we can do this. But it’s going to take all of us. Sign up now.
Before You Go
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