Cities face significant energy and environmental challenges. Here’s where the leading presidential candidates stand on the issues.
For cities, there are no bigger energy and environment-related issues than climate change, water infrastructure and the nexus between them. In a week when the current Administration’s plan to reduce carbon emissions was heard before the D.C. Circuit Court, and Congress still hasn’t provided relief to the Flint, Michigan, drinking water crisis, there is no better time to examine the stark policy differences between the two leading presidential candidates.
The recent National Climate Assessment reports that current evidence of climate change appears in every region and its impacts are currently visible in every state, and concludes that the evidence of human-induced climate change continues to strengthen. Across the country, local governments are seeing the devastating effects associated with a changing climate, and recent extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts, heavy downpours and floods (which are becoming more common) have brought renewed attention to the need for cities to anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to these events. As first responders, cities are on the front lines when it comes to bearing the impacts and the costs of these events. Cities are taking action to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to a changing environment, and create community resilience that will help save lives, strengthen local economies, save taxpayer dollars, and build preparedness for future events.
Where Do the Leading Candidates Stand?
Donald Trump: While Mr. Trump has no official campaign position on environmental issues, he has called climate change a “hoax,” wants to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement, and has recently selected a leading climate skeptic to lead his transition team for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Mr. Trump’s energy plan focuses primarily on fossil fuel use such as coal, oil, and natural gas.
Hillary Clinton: Secretary Clinton has called climate change an “urgent threat” and has vowed to uphold the Paris climate agreement and the Clean Power Plan. Her plan includes a $60 billion Clean Energy Challenge to cut carbon emissions and invest in renewable energy.
Most aligned on city issues? Secretary Clinton.
Water issues related to climate change (communities facing too much water or too little water, sea level rise, salt water intrusion, drought, flooding and water quality) is just one of several environmental challenges cities face.
Arguably, the most pressing is the state of our nation’s wastewater and drinking infrastructure, which is aging and failing. Much of our water infrastructure was built in the post-World War II period — some of it is more than 100 years old and in need of critical updates— and an estimated 240,000 water main breaks happen each year in our country.
Of course, the main challenge in improving this infrastructure is the significant financial commitment needed from all levels of government. The EPA estimates the nation’s water infrastructure capital needs over the next 20 years to be approximately $720 billion in total, the American Society for Civil Engineers estimates the needed investment for water infrastructure to be $1.3 trillion over the next 20-25 years, and other estimates put the cost at more than $4 trillion to maintain and build a 21st century water system.
Local government investments account for 95-98 percent of all water and sewer infrastructure spending, including more than $117 billion in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, financial participation by the federal government in assisting cities in maintaining and upgrading water infrastructure systems has declined significantly in the past 25 years.
Combined with our infrastructure needs for maintenance, repair and rehabilitation are new costly and complex federal mandates that are driving local water and sewer rates to levels that are unaffordable for many of our citizens.
And finally, there is the ongoing drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which highlights the nation’s aging infrastructure problem and the need for investment. In many ways, the situation in Flint is unique – but it also highlights the everyday challenges faced by cities across the country. We know that Flint is not alone in its high lead levels. A recent analysis by the American Water Works Association estimates that 6.1 million lead service lines remain in U.S. communities, and the cost of replacing these lines is estimated at $30 billion. Beyond immediate aid to the city and residents, which Congress continues to debate, we must invest in our water infrastructure nationwide, and the federal government must be a partner to cities.
Where Do the Leading Candidates Stand?
One issue on which Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump both agree is that we need more infrastructure investments — of all kinds — in America. Secretary Clinton has proposed a $275 billion five-year plan to invest in roads, transit, water, energy and broadband. Clinton’s plan calls for allocating $250 billion to direct public investment, including drinking water and wastewater systems, and $25 billion for an infrastructure bank. Without citing specifics, Mr. Trump has vowed to double that and invest up to $1 trillion.
Most aligned on city issues? As with most things, the devil is in the details. A significant infrastructure investment is a welcome commitment from both of these candidates. However, only Secretary Clinton has offered some insight as to what her specific plan might be.
About the author: Carolyn Berndt is the Program Director for Infrastructure and Sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. She leads NLC’s advocacy, regulatory, and policy efforts on energy and environmental issues, including water infrastructure and financing, air and water quality, climate change, and energy efficiency. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.