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Biden Wants To Take On Heat-Buckled Roads In His Infrastructure Update


Flooding sewers in Detroit. Melting roads in the Pacific Northwest. A collapsed building in Florida. While politicians in D.C. bicker over an infrastructure bill, actual infrastructure in the United States is failing, and it's a sign of trouble ahead. In some of the past week's events, scientists see signals of climate change. To talk about that, we are joined by Nathan Rott, a member of NPR's climate team.

Hi, Nate.


SHAPIRO: Over the last week, we've been covering a lot of these dramatic stories as individual crises. What do you see when you look at them collectively?

ROTT: You know, well, I think we see the hallmarks of a warming world, you know, the kinds of headline-grabbing events that climate scientists have been warning us about for decades, frankly. You know, hundreds of motorists stranded on roads in Detroit, you know, when it rained six inches in just five hours over the weekend, causing sewers and storm drains to flood. You know, record temperatures in Oregon and Washington, Idaho, Montana, that have buckled roads and melted cables on streetcars. You know, and then, of course, there is the tragic condo collapse in South Florida.

SHAPIRO: We so often hear that it's difficult to tie an individual incident to climate change. So what sorts of connections...

ROTT: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Can be drawn here?

ROTT: Yeah, I mean, so at this point, there's no clear link between climate change and what happened in Florida. Right? We do know that chronic flooding was an issue with the building. And, you know, beyond that, we know that tens of billions of dollars of American infrastructure are at risk from rising sea levels in the U.S. Now, the flooding, the heat, the larger drought that's occurring in the West - those are different. We know that climate change is helping fuel the megadrought that's making rivers in Montana - where I am right now - really, really low. We know that hotter global temperatures are making heat waves, like the one of the Northwest, even worse and more frequent. And we know that climate change is expected to make rain events, like what happened in Michigan, more common.

SHAPIRO: We also know that climate change is accelerating, right? Like, it's as good as it's going to be. So if we're already seeing these serious impacts on infrastructure right now, what does that mean for the future?

ROTT: Yeah, it's not good (laughter). I mean, one of the things that I try to think about when I'm thinking about, like, the built environment that we all live in - right? - our homes, our cities, our roads, our farms - all of that was built with a specific climate in mind. That is no longer the climate that we're living in.

Here's Carl Imhoff from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He and I talked earlier. He's an expert on the nation's increasingly strained electrical grids, many of which were built, you know, 30 to 40 years ago.

CARL IMHOFF: Some of the systems are brand-new. Some of them are older. But they were designed for a certain threshold in terms of wind extremes or temperature extremes, et cetera. And the extremes are changing.

ROTT: Which is what's fueling blackouts like we saw in Texas earlier this year and in California before and what we're seeing now.

SHAPIRO: And so as Congress debates infrastructure packages, and the Biden administration pushes for its agenda, how much of what we're talking about now is included in the proposals that Congress is considering?

ROTT: So, Ari, that depends on who you ask (laughter). A lot of Biden's climate promises - proposals that he's made in office and before - got left on the cutting room floor of this proposal. But it does provide some money for resiliency, which is desperately needed.

I was talking to an environmental justice advocate earlier named Justin Onwenu. He's in Detroit, and, thankfully, he didn't have his home flooded like a lot of his friends and family did over the last week. But he was saying, you know, he's talking to people, and they're worried because this is the second once-in-a-lifetime flood event Michigan has experienced in just the last two years - you know, the first being the dam collapse in Midland last year.

JUSTIN ONWENU: So I think what we're seeing, whether it's, you know, the flooding that's happening in the Midwest or the extreme heat that we're seeing in other parts of the country, climate is a part of infrastructure, and there's no way around that. And so I think making sure that climate is centered as we make infrastructure investments is important, and then also making sure that those investments are going into the communities that really need it.

ROTT: Communities, he says, like Detroit. And that's something that a lot of progressive lawmakers...

SHAPIRO: All right.

ROTT: ...Are pushing for with this proposal.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Nathan Rott, thank you.

ROTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
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