President Obama was in a good mood Tuesday night at the State of the Union. His “we can fix this” spirit and “built for this moment” words were signs of a White House ready to push a progressive agenda regardless of congressional support. For environmentalists, it proved a watershed moment. Obama discussed efforts to reduce pollution and seek sustainable sources of energy as signature domestic initatives on par with immigration reform and gun control. A new Senate bill on climate change will be introduced this week.
But despite the positive spirit, Obama also admitted defeat. For the first time at that podium, a president conceded that, when it comes to climate change, we are already too late. The litany of destruction that Mother Nature delivered during Obama’s first term will likely be repeated in the years ahead. Even subtracting Hurricane Sandy’s $60 billion price tag, the last two years have brought about utter devastation. There were at least 21 extreme events — floods, droughts, wildfires and storms — that each cost over $1 billion in disaster relief funding.
Obama may have the wind at his sails, but he also has been forced to become the Master of Disaster. His second-term emphasis on climate change is not a green-hued symbol for environmentally friendly policies. It’s about minimizing the impact of destructive events that can’t really be prevented any longer.
In much of the world, climate change — and resulting famines and flooding — are displacing people. The same will be true here. Where we build and where we live may no longer be sustainable. In his speech, Obama only hinted that we will “prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change.” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has already begun this process by proposing to raze damaged homes, move citizens inland, and build buffer zones against future flooding in residential areas affected by Hurricane Sandy.
Across the Eastern Seaboard, from New Jersey’s damaged shoreline to the parts of New England ravaged by the blizzard last week, the government is considering whether to allow people to use federal funds to rebuild homes in areas that will, inevitably, be at risk once again. No one doubts the emotional and political consequences of moving people. That’s why the federal relief fund for victims of Hurricane Sandy sets aside about $18 billion to rebuild homes and businesses in safer places. There will be another hurricane.
The second piece of a defense strategy against the effects of global warming is modernizing our aging infrastructure, which is clearly not able to hold up under environmental stress. Whether it is our exposed electrical wires brought down by wind, our subway systems flooded by rain, or our ports and airports closed by snow, we seem to go out of business too easily and too frequently.
Obama’s newly announced “Partnership to Rebuild America” may be sold as a glitzy marriage between Silicon Valley, private equity, and bureaucrats to promote infrastructure investments, but it is, at its core, a way of guarding against global warming. A private sector that profits from America’s infrastructure should invest in it so that it can better withstand a changing climate and remain open for business. Congress is likely to revisit long-dormant proposals for an infrastructure bank in which private investments would help to fund major projects and later recoup money from fees and tolls.
The two past Senate proponents of a private infrastructure bank are now working with the administration: Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel. That they are focused on foreign policy and defense issues is a reminder that America’s vulnerabilities are a matter of national security. Our competitiveness abroad and military readiness to protect the homeland are both subject to the vagaries of climate change.
Storms are coming. Let’s play smarter defense.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @juliettekayyem.