Our Woefully Unsustainable Infrastructure Is Being Exposed

In 2021, our fossil fuel-dependent infrastructure has suffered some tragic failures. Jeffrey Sachs explains what we need to do about it and why we need it now.

For the second time this year, America’s fossil fuel infrastructure was crippled, exposing vulnerabilities in our critically underfunded and antiquated energy systems. Though vastly different circumstances led to the Texas blackouts in February and the Colonial Pipeline shutdown this week, both causes are now more prevalent and increasingly more likely in a world of extreme temperatures and ever-present cyber-attacks. And the oil and gas companies that have profited from government subsidies, tax breaks, and the avoidance of paying the true social costs of their product were caught flat footed. Instead of reinvesting those unearned profits into protections against reasonably predictable events, profits were largely returned to shareholders and company executives, while many Americans - especially our most vulnerable populations - were left to suffer the consequences.

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But the fossil fuel failures we’ve already witnessed in 2021 shouldn’t be dismissed as a few bad actors leading us into costly or tragic outcomes. As we decarbonize the economy, an overhaul of American infrastructure is needed in tandem. In my recent interview with Professor Jeffrey Sachs, he put it bluntly, “For decades, we just have not kept pace with our transport system, our rail, our fiber; so we don’t have the infrastructure for a 21st Century modern economy – we’ve just underinvested.”

In 2019, The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the United States invested about 2.3% of GDP in its infrastructure, which as a share of GDP was the lowest amount in more than 60 years. While “Infrastructure Week” became a running joke during the Trump Administration, President Biden  responded in his first 100 days with the  American Jobs Plan, which would commit $2 Trillion to invest in America’s infrastructure over the next 10 years.

And as Sachs noted, we can’t just keep making marginal improvements to an antiquated fossil fuel infrastructure that has led to critical health issues, an unsustainable environment, and preventable levels of energy insecurity. “We need a much smarter infrastructure, both for our competitiveness, good jobs, global trade, daily life. But we also need to make sure that this is a climate safe infrastructure, and especially that it helps to achieve President Biden’s proper objective of decarbonizing the economy by mid-century.”

America needs to keep pace  with China’s enormously ambitious infrastructure projects already underway and we need to recapture the passion for public investment that 90 years ago helped lead to the creation of the world’s strongest economy. We need to invest in infrastructure today that will result in a stronger, more sustainable economy and society tomorrow. Over the last decade, China’s infrastructure spending has represented nearly 8% of its GDP. Under Roosevelt’s New Deal, America’s infrastructure spending amounted to nearly 7% of the country’s GDP

The history of the American economy has shown our current public investment is woefully inadequate to combat the problems of the 21st Century.  And a  21st Century infrastructure must fight it all – racial injustice, economic inequality, and a rapidly warming planet. For too long, fossil fuel companies have generated incredible profits by building dirty coal plants in low-income and nonwhite neighborhoods and forcing leaky oil pipelines through native communities. But the history of our public investment (especially The New Deal) has also shown politicians all too often overlook or even exacerbate these same inequities through economically beneficial but structurally discriminatory policies.  Investing in a clean energy infrastructure means directly addressing the communities that have endured the unequal brunt of environmental degradation caused by the burning of fossil fuels and delivering the basic rights to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and grow up in a safer world. Infrastructure investments in our most overlooked and underfunded communities need to create more jobs, eliminate pollutants caused by fossil fuels, decrease health care costs, and improve quality of life.

Infrastructure investments allow for highly visible, very tangible cause and effect. Adding charging stations creates greater adoption of electric vehicles that don’t require pipelines to deliver needed fuel. Building a smarter, more resilient electricity grid enables the proliferation of distributed, renewable energy generation to help fight against widespread outages in critical moments. Urban planning that prioritizes people - pedestrians and cyclists alike -  reduces the viability of gas guzzling SUVs. High-speed rail makes hard to decarbonize air travel less desirable for short distance trips. If America’s goal is to truly create a more sustainable society, we know what we need to invest in to get there.

In his 2015 book, The Age of Sustainable Development, Jeffrey Sachs wrote that the objectives of sustainable development are economic prosperity, social inclusion and cohesion, environmental sustainability, and good governance. America must take this opportunity, as our fossil fuel infrastructure crumbles around us, to launch a new path toward sustainable development, one that leaves fossil fuels behind and brings along all communities, especially frontline communities, toward a better future of greater and more equal prosperity.

To hear more about what Jeffrey Sachs thinks about the American Jobs Plans, debt spending, tax rates on corporations and the wealthiest individuals, and his hopes for the future, watch my entire interview with him here.

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