U.S. wildfire and heat risks to get new spending under Biden plan

Firefighters are silhouetted standing under a tree

Klamath Interagency Hotshots rest under a tree while waiting for a new assignment as the McKinney Fire burns near Yreka, California, U.S., July 31, 2022. REUTERS/Fred Greaves

What’s the context?

As climate risks grow, a proposed U.S. legislative package would funnel money to help – and to cut emissions.

  • Advocates hail climate bill's historic spending levels
  • Funding earmarked for twin crises of wildfires, heat
  • Environmentalists wary of oil and gas concessions

WASHINGTON - A 700-plus-page "inflation reduction" bill moving through the U.S. Congress would steer significant new funds toward battling wildfires and extreme heat - climate change-related risks that are wreaking havoc across the country this summer.

The legislation, pared down from earlier versions, would direct approximately $370 billion toward a range of climate and energy initiatives, including renewable energy tax credits, backing for electric cars and heat pumps, and environmental justice.

If passed - no easy feat given a narrow Democratic majority - the bill would represent a historic level of investment toward reducing fast-growing climate change threats, backers say.

“This is going to, if passed, be the most action the United States has ever taken on climate,” said Christina DeConcini, director of government affairs at the World Resources Institute, a global research group.

“Will there be more that we need to do? Absolutely. But this is just so significant and (it's) so important that we get this over the finish line.”

After months of stop-and-start negotiations, Democrats in the U.S. Senate hope to pass the measure as soon as this week, before lawmakers break for their summer vacation.

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As drought-fueled wildfires spread out of control in the western United States, lawmakers want to direct about $2 billion toward hazardous fuels reduction.

The money in the bill, formally known as the Inflation Reduction Act, could go toward measures like clearing brush through prescribed burns or mechanical thinning so when fires do occur they're not as intense.

The funding is a fraction of the forestry money in earlier versions of President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” vision – but is nevertheless a massive step forward, said Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests, a nonprofit forest conservation group.

Daley estimated the bill contains at least $5 billion for “explicit" forest funding and said prioritized the “clear and present dangers” of wildfires and extreme heat.

“We’re ecstatic with where this is,” he said. “We’re still at a game-changing level - we've never had anything close to this level of funding to work with, for example, in wildfire risk reduction or in urban forestry."

A sign sits near a fire hydrant at the entrance to Mt Scott park

A sign sits at the entrance to Mt Scott park as a heat wave continues in Portland, Oregon, U.S., August 12, 2021. REUTERS/Mathieu Lewis-Rolland

A sign sits at the entrance to Mt Scott park as a heat wave continues in Portland, Oregon, U.S., August 12, 2021. REUTERS/Mathieu Lewis-Rolland

Forests are one of the best natural “carbon sinks” – meaning they pull climate-changing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as they grow and store it.

That means proper forest conservation and restoration efforts – as well as prescribed burns to reduce the risk of the runaway wildfires blazing throughout the western United States and beyond – are critical in the battle to curb global warming.

Extreme heat

The bill also earmarks funds to combat increasingly extreme heat as the United States – and much of the world – grapples with record-shattering and increasingly deadly temperatures this year.

For example, there is $1.5 billion in grant funding through the U.S. Forest Service for initiatives such as helping cities plant trees, which provide natural cooling and can improve air quality, Daley said.

The bill also includes more than $1.8 billion for a grant program that could go toward reducing the risks from "urban heat islands", in which concrete-heavy cities trap more heat, pushing up temperatures compared to outlying areas.

The heat island effect is a particular risk for poorer inner-city communities who may have little access to green areas or cash to pay for cooling.

As well, the bill contains $3 billion in grants and funding designed in part to cut health risks from urban heat islands, extreme heat, and wildfires.

The Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency “really sees the value of trees on the urban heat island and air quality issues that are part of what they’re trying to address,” Daley said.

The bill notably also directs $500 million toward boosting domestic production of clean energy technologies like heat pumps, which provide low-cost, climate-smart heating and cooling, DeConcini said.

“All of these kinds of things have shorter-term impacts where an individual can be greater protected from the onslaught of the extreme weather events,” she said.

Paying the cost

As well as addressing wildfires and extreme heat, the bill aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade through other spending on clean energy tax incentives and electric vehicle credits, for example.

Such emissions cuts are crucial to preventing even more extreme heat, wildfires, flooding and associated financial and human losses in coming years, scientists say.

Democrats aim to offset some of the costs of the credits and incentives by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations - a move staunchly opposed by congressional Republicans, who say such taxpayers can't afford to pay more amid a stagnant economy.

The bill could cut U.S. emissions by 31-44% by 2030, according to an analysis by the Rhodium Group, a research firm.

That is below Biden’s goal of halving them by the end of the decade, but still an improvement over an estimated 24-35% cut under current policy.

Environmental groups have generally praised the bill, but some are wary of provisions they say could boost oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, as well as language linking approval of new wind and solar projects on public land to approvals for new fossil fuel leases.

“Locking in a decade of leasing … pretty much guarantees the status quo, if not greater oil and gas production off of public lands and waters for the next decade,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group.

“Holding renewable energy hostage to it is a pretty cynical ploy,” he added.

Such provisions could be necessary to win support from Sen. Joe Manchin III, a key Democrat whose home state of West Virginia is heavily reliant on fossil fuels. He supports the latest version of the bill, after previous negotiations hit a stalemate.

Environmental justice

Sponsors of the bill say more than $60 billion in measures included are directed toward “environmental justice” initiatives intended to help communities that have disproportionately borne the brunt of poor air quality and pollution.

But that amount isn’t nearly enough, said Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice at the nonprofit New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

There are unanswered questions about how exactly the funds would be steered toward those communities, he noted.

“It’s not just a matter of planting trees,” he said. “There’s going to have to be a lot more to prevent a disproportionate amount of deaths and hospitalizations resulting from heat islands.”

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