To Help COVID Recovery and Address Climate, We Must Protect Natural Spaces

With the right policies, existing spaces like wetlands, forests, and farmland can remove emissions and help protect against future crises that affect people and wildlife. Congress must include support for natural climate solutions in any recovery plan.

The following is one in a series of pieces explaining how investing in conservation and climate solutions can help rebuild our economy, grow jobs, and protect both communities and the birds we love.

As the coronavirus response shifts from emergency relief to longer economic recovery, Congress has an opportunity to prepare for future emergencies, especially those that could fuel more pandemics and further strain healthcare systems.

To protect against future crises, Congress must include natural climate solutions in upcoming economic recovery bills. Not only will climate change threaten the survival of birds and people, it will worsen air pollution and future epidemics, and create more powerful weather events that create additional burdens to our healthcare systems. COVID-19 has exposed the compounding threats air pollution poses to public health, especially in vulnerable communities that see higher death rates as a result of being  exposed to higher concentrations of pollutants. Climate threats to our healthcare system could also undermine response. Recent extreme weather events have cost lives and forced evacuations of hospitals and nursing homes in Texas during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and in Florida from Hurricane Michael in 2018; and mass evacuations and increased risks to people with respiratory ailments in California due to wildfires last year. During hurricane and wildfire seasons, we will most certainly cause further strain on efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This unprecedented crisis presents a chance to break through political gridlock and be proactive. Congress can begin by investing in solutions that reduce carbon emissions immediately, like clean energy and other technologies. They can also invest in protecting our existing natural resources so we can use nature itself to guard against future crises.

Here are some ways natural solutions to climate change have far-reaching effects on people and wildlife, including on public health:

  • Restored wetlands remove carbon from the atmosphere, while simultaneously improving water and air quality and providing natural flood buffers to protect communities from increasing flood risk and rising seas.
  • New public works projects that incorporate natural infrastructure into their design improve resiliency. For example, the Oregon Department of Transportation removed a levee and restored a natural floodplain along the Necanicum River to reduce seasonal flooding along portions of Highway 101.
  • Smart forestry, agriculture, and land management practices, like paying farmers to take sensitive land out of crop production temporarily and plant native vegetation instead, can provide new revenue streams for farmers and private landowners, while protecting nature and capturing carbon dioxide. These practices support outdoor jobs in rural areas, provide a great return on taxpayer investment, and have bipartisan support.

Currently, there are several federal programs that Congress should include in upcoming economic recovery packages:

  • Army Corps of Engineers: Ongoing restoration initiatives in the Everglades, Great Lakes, and all along the Mississippi River have significant unmet funding needs. Everglades restoration alone is estimated to produce a $4 return for every $1 spent and create more than 440,000 jobs ranging from construction to tourism. The Beneficial Use of Dredged Material program uses sediments excavated from waterway dredging to restore habitats and enhance flood protections for coastal communities. Audubon is working on such a project in South Carolina to use dredged material to create seabird nesting habitat.
  • Department of Commerce, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): The National Coastal Resilience Fund and the Habitat Conservation Grant Programs enhance coastal ecosystems and reduce flood risks for coastal communities. NOAA estimates that 15 to 30 jobs are created for every million dollars invested in coastal restoration projects.
  • Department of Interior: Drought response programs at the Bureau of Reclamation improve the efficiency of Colorado River water use and result in benefits for all Colorado River users. For example, Arizona’s waterways, enjoyed by over 1.5 million residents each year, contribute $13.5 billion to the state’s economy and support 114,000 jobs.
  • Department of Agriculture: The Natural Resources Conservation Service offers several landscape planning and financial assistance programs that provide cost-effective benefits to the economy, public health and safety, and the environment. For instance, the Emergency Watershed Protection program helps communities quickly address flood damages to infrastructure and land. It provides funding for floodplain restoration and conservation projects that reduce risks to communities and enhance habitats for birds and other wildlife.
  • Environmental Protection Agency: The Geographic and National Estuary Programs support efforts to restore watersheds like the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay, and Puget Sound, which provide tremendous return on investment. Estimates show that for every $1 invested in Great Lakes restoration produces more than $3 in additional economic activity regionwide over 20 years. The Clean Water State Revolving Fund helps states address critical water infrastructure needs. Congress should support the Green Project Reserve Program to encourage states to invest in energy- and water-efficiency upgrades, and natural and nature-based approaches for addressing local water quality challenges.
  • Department of Transportation: Congressional leaders should also provide critical funding for surface transportation and include provisions like those in S. 2302 that would help to enhance the resilience and sustainability of transportation systems, including by creating a new  Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-Saving Transportation (PROTECT) program. This program would help transportation agencies deploy innovative natural infrastructure solutions for reducing flood risks to transportation systems and managing stormwater pollution. These investments will ensure the long-term resilience of roads, highways and bridges; improve community safety; create high-paying construction and restoration jobs; and deliver environmental benefits for birds, wildlife, and ecosystems.

Programs like these improve bird habitat, increase resiliency, and provide natural solutions to climate change. Funding for natural solutions to climate change should not be considered separate from the recovery of the economy and public health. As Congress considers long-term solutions, they must remember that protecting our natural world means protecting all of us.