President Trump could win big on infrastructure – if he rethinks his stance on climate change

President Trump eliminating some regulations on the mining industry. So, yay. Image: Getty.

Disaster was narrowly averted on 12 February, after America’s tallest dam threatened to release a deluge of water over thousands of homes. Dramatic scenes of water cascading from the Oroville dam emerged after a hole the size of a football field appeared in the spillway floor, allowing water to rip through its foundations and compromise the whole structure. Authorities ordered 180,000 people to evacuate while the water level was lowered to relieve pressure on the damaged spillway. But 48 hours later, the immediate danger had passed and residents were allowed to return home.

This near catastrophe is just the latest symptom of the chronic ill-health of America’s civil infrastructure, which has suffered from decades of under-investment and neglect. But the Oroville dam crisis could provide an unexpected opportunity for the new Trump administration to take on both problems – and win.

Winning is important to the US president, Donald Trump. This is not in dispute. He has built his name, his fame and his entire presidential campaign on being seen to be a winner. In office, he has been quick to reject situations where there is no easy win in sight: from his opposition to the environmental lobby, to his dislike of multilateral trade deals and his “shut up shop” attitude on migration.

But when it comes to infrastructure, the win is clear to see: stuff is broken, stuff can be fixed by good, honest blue-collar workers driving proper US-made machines. These things can be paid for using money – and money is what Trump knows about. New roads, new jobs, a New Deal even – these all look like wins for a relentlessly ambitious president.


What’s the damage?

But renewing the nation’s failing infrastructure is not a simple process, as successive White House administrations have found. Up to $1trn is required to repair or replace ageing dams, bridges, highways and all the other components that support modern civilisation. Where to source the money has been a subject of political wrangling for decades.

Arguments between state and federal administrations, fuelled by political in-fighting and lobbyists – including environmentalists who are opposed to big infrastructure on principle – have all contributed to the stasis. But with a new strategy, Trump might just be able to score a big win where other presidents have lost out.

For water infrastructure, such as Oroville dam, perhaps the most obvious part of the problem is the weather. After five years of extreme drought, this winter has brought record rainfalls. Just prior to the crisis, the Oroville reservoir and others like it were at more than 150 per cent of their normal capacity.

Full to overflowing. Image: Monica M Davey/EPA.

Under these conditions, every storm becomes a challenge for water resource engineers. But what has this got to do with Trump’s infrastructure promise? Year-on-year variations in seasonal weather are highly unpredictable. But in the longer term, atmospheric rivers (a key factor in Californian climate) and similar extreme weather events are robustly predicted to increase in frequency as the global climate warms. The strong balance of scientific evidence and opinion suggests that greenhouse gas emitters worldwide are at least partially responsible: particularly in the US and China, which together generate a third of world emissions

The denier’s dilemma

This presents Trump the climate change denier with a dilemma. To get the win on infrastructure, he needs money. To get the money in a reasonable time frame, he will need corporate investors who are prepared to cut through the political deadlock. But investors require incentives to channel funds into long-term public works, for which Trump will claim the bulk of the credit. And market economics suggests that if there was any money in it for them, this would already be happening.

The Oroville dam, though, demonstrates that some of the largest imminent threats to infrastructure will increase through climate change. If Trump could take an executive decision to shift his position on that – surely not hard for someone who deals so readily in “alternative facts” – then a pathway to the win could open up.

Keen for a win. Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/Wikimedia commons.

Apportioning blame for carbon emissions could bolster his case for tariffs and other sanctions on Chinese imports. A similar economic stick for domestic polluters would be less palatable, but the money raised could be used to provide corporations with financial incentives to invest in maintaining infrastructure, expanding renewables and adopting green, energy-efficient technology. All these projects promise long-term gains for US businesses and jobs, if only the initial inertia could be overcome. Carbon reduction tariffs, linked specifically to infrastructure renewal incentives, could provide that vital momentum.

Such ideas have been around for decades: environmental thinkers including Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins espouse the notion of “natural capitalism” – a market-driven economics which centres on the value of natural resources. The Oroville dam provides compelling evidence of the hard economic costs of inaction on infrastructure.

Accepting man-made climate change could provide Trump with a chance to deliver on one of his major campaign promises, change the face of capitalism and perhaps even save the world along the way. Doesn’t that look like a win? The Conversation

Jonathan Bridge is a senior lecturer in physical geography at Sheffield Hallam University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Budget 2017: Philip Hammond just showed that rejecting metro mayors was a terrible, terrible error

Sorry, Leeds, nothing here for you: Philip Hammond and his big red box. Image: Getty.

There were some in England’s cities, one sensed, who breathed a sigh of relief when George Osborne left the Treasury. Not only was he the architect of austerity, a policy which had seen council budgets slashed as never before: he’d also refused to countenance any serious devolution to city regions that refused to have a mayor, an innovation that several remained dead-set against.

So his political demise after the Brexit referendum was seen, in some quarters, as A Good Thing for devolution. The new regime, it was hoped, would be amenable to a variety of governance structures more sensitive to particular local needs.

Well, that theory just went out of the window. In his Budget statement today, in between producing some of the worst growth forecasts that anyone can remember and failing to solve the housing crisis, chancellor Philip Hammond outlined some of the things he was planning for Britain’s cities.

And, intentionally or otherwise, he made it very clear that it was those areas which had accepted Osborne’s terms which were going to win out. 

The big new announcement was a £1.7bn “Transforming Cities Fund”, which will

“target projects which drive productivity by improving connectivity, reducing congestion and utilising new mobility services and technology”.

To translate this into English, this is cash for better public transport.

And half of this money will go straight to the six city regions which last May elected their first metro mayor elections. The money is being allocated on a per capita basis which, in descending order of generosity, means:

  • £250m to West Midlands
  • £243 to Greater Manchester
  • £134 to Liverpool City Region
  • £80m to West of England
  • £74m to Cambridgeshire &d Peterborough
  • £59m to Tees Valley

That’s £840m accounted for. The rest will be available to other cities – but the difference is, they’ll have to bid for it.

So the Tees Valley, which accepted Osborne’s terms, will automatically get a chunk of cash to improve their transport system. Leeds, which didn’t, still has to go begging.

One city which doesn’t have to go begging is Newcastle. Hammond promised to replace the 40 year old trains on the Tyne & Wear metro at a cost of £337m. In what may or may not be a coincidence, he also confirmed a new devolution deal with the “North of Tyne” region (Newcastle, North Tyne, Northumberland). This is a faintly ridiculous geography for such a deal, since it excludes Sunderland and, worse, Gateshead, which is, to most intents and purposes, simply the southern bit of Newcastle. But it’s a start, and will bring £600m more investment to the region. A new mayor will be elected in 2018.

Hammond’s speech contained other goodies for cites too, of course. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • £123m for the regeneration of the Redcar Steelworks site: that looks like a sop to Ben Houchen, the Tory who unexpectedly won the Tees Valley mayoral election last May;
  • A second devolution deal for the West Midlands: tat includes more money for skills and housing (though the sums are dwarfed by the aforementioned transport money);
  • A new local industrial strategy for Greater Manchester, as well as exploring “options for the future beyond the Fund, including land value capture”;
  • £300m for rail improvements tied into HS2, which “will enable faster services between Liverpool and Manchester, Sheffeld, Leeds and York, as well as to Leicester and other places in the East Midlands and London”.

Hammond also made a few promises to cities beyond England: opening negotiations for a Belfast City Deal, and pointing to progress on city deals in Dundee and Stirling.


A city that doesn’t get any big promises out of this budget is – atypically – London. Hammond promised to “continue to work with TfL on the funding and financing of Crossrail 2”, but that’s a long way from promising to pay for it. He did mention plans to pilot 100 per cent business rate retention in the capital next year, however – which, given the value of property in London, is potentially quite a big deal.

So at least that’s something. And London, as has often been noted, has done very well for itself in most budgets down the year.

Many of the other big regional cities haven’t. Yet Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby were all notable for their absence, both from Hammond’s speech and from the Treasury documents accompanying it.

And not one of them has a devolution deal or a metro mayor.

(If you came here looking for my thoughts on the housing element of the budget speech, then you can find them over at the New Statesman. Short version: oh, god.)

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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