By Gavin Dillingham, PhD, Vice President, Research
Last weekend, I watched Rogue One: A Star Wars Story with my son for the 100th time. The movie answers the question of how the Resistance got the Death Star Plans. At the end of the movie, the ship captain asks, “What is it that they have sent us?” Princess Leia responds, “Hope.”
Hope is what I feel now with the passage and signing of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). This bill does a lot of things, but most importantly, it brings considerable resources to not only reducing greenhouse gases (GHG), but also to improving our adaptive capacity — our resilience — to intensifying extreme weather risks.
It is important that both are in the bill because we need to do both: reduce GHG and adapt to what we’re facing now. It is unfortunate, but the extreme weather we are currently witnessing, attributed to human activities rather than the natural cycle of climate change, is here. We could stop emissions today, but because of what has already been released, the planet has changed. Extreme, erratic weather patterns are now common occurrences. Our goal now is to reduce GHG emissions to keep extreme weather events from getting worse, and to improve our resilience for what is happening now.
Through a combination of programs, the IRA does much to reduce GHG and to enhance the adaptive capacity of our infrastructure and communities. The Act places a substantial amount of focus on promoting resilience for historically underserved communities, particularly fenceline communities and those experiencing major issues with pollution.
For example, the Environmental Justice Block Grant (EJBG), which is part of IRA, looks to be a significant step forward to support communities in both reducing emissions and improving adaptive capacity. The EJBG will provide grants that address the disproportional health risks that are a result of pollution and climate change.
There is also considerable funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to further develop a grant program to improve the energy and water efficiency, and the climate resilience of affordable housing. This will result in lower energy burdens and climate-ready housing that can better weather the storms.
After Winter Storm Uri and a second summer with the threat of rolling blackouts, Texas’ residents, particularly those in disadvantaged communities, need to have the resources and investments required to lower energy costs and be prepared for the next power outage. To reduce the impact of extreme temperatures and power outages, HARC is currently rolling out a new weatherization program in partnership with the DOE’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). The intent of this effort is to ensure more homes are weather-ready and have access to weatherization services.
Urban areas dealing with extreme heat, attributable in some degree to the amount of concrete and developed land, will see significant federal funding to lessen these heat islands through urban reforestation and expanding of green spaces in cities. Reforesting our urban environment, if done right, will lead to native trees being planted in the areas of greatest need.
There is a significant tree equity issue in the Houston region where lower income communities have fewer trees, resulting in higher temperatures due to the lack of shade. HARC is currently administering a tree equity program with the Mitsubishi Foundation that will bring together tree canopy and heat island data, increasing the opportunity to have more trees planted in locations that have had significant tree loss and now have the greatest need. The proposed federal funding can build upon existing tree planting efforts in the Houston region, resulting in lower ambient temperatures, reduced heat-related illness and death, less energy burden, decreased flood risks, and an improved overall quality of life.
The IRA also focuses on natural systems, acknowledging the fact that we share a planet with a bunch of other living organisms. The Act provides considerable funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Parks Service to better conserve, restore, and protect our natural habitats across all biomes, with a specific focus on coastal communities. This will help improve the adaptive capacity for all of our planet’s inhabitants.
On the Gulf Coast, our coastal ecosystems and communities are experiencing significant stress due to extreme weather events, including hurricanes, droughts, and sea-level rise, as well as rapid energy infrastructure and economic development. HARC’s work along the Gulf Coast largely focuses on improving coastal resilience for communities and the surrounding ecosystem, particularly the Climate Ready Estuaries program along Galveston Bay. Progress is being made along the Gulf Coast, and federal funding will allow for greater enhancement and growth of these programs to better ensure a healthy, sustainable environment.
All of this brings me back to the idea of hope, because we now have an Act that could make this planet more livable, and that could better ensure prosperity and sustainability for all of us. Billions of dollars could be invested in Texas over the next several years to improve our energy, transportation and water systems, our communities, and our natural environment. The amount of funding and the level of focus now directed at our underserved, often ignored communities and our natural systems is unprecedented. This kind of investment and focus gives me hope.
The IRA may not be as life-changing for us as the Death Star Plans were in a galaxy far, far away; but it can make a significant difference in our lifetime and that of our children. If implemented in the right way, it could provide sustainable and equitable benefits for all of us living here in this galaxy, on this particular planet.
That should give all of us some level of hope.