Ida’s aftermath shows need to address climate change, invest in infrastructure

The loss of life and the enormous damage Hurricane Ida has left in its wake are renewing bigger conversations around climate change. The past few days alone have seen one biblical-like problem after another: Massive flooding, a total loss of power, wind destruction; and wildfires in the west. Alice Hill, author of the new book "The Fight for Climate After COVID-19," joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we have been reporting, the loss of life and the enormous damage Ida has left in its wake are renewing bigger conversations around climate change, not only about how to slow it, but also about how to better prepare our communities for these consequences, making them more resilient.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, the past few days alone have seen one biblical-like problem after another, flooding, a total loss of power and breakdown of the electrical grid, wind destruction and fires out of control in the West.

    Alice Hill has long worked on these issues, including at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. She is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the new book "The Fight For Climate After COVID-19."

    Alice Hill, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for making the time.

    I want to ask you about this word resiliency we have heard so much. We heard it from President Biden earlier today as well. Billions of dollars went into fortifying New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And yet we have all still seen the devastation that Hurricane Ida wrought.

    So what should have been done that wasn't done?

    Alice Hill, Former Special Assistant to President Obama: Well, there is so much to do when it comes to preparing for climate. It's an endless list.

    There has been great progress made, but these impacts are coming in harder, faster, and causing more destruction. So we need to do more to get ready.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So let's talk about some of the specifics here, the power grid in particular in Louisiana now, more than a million people there left without power. It could be weeks before it is restored.

    And the local utility there, Entergy, is now facing criticism for not being better prepared. Is part of this problem when we talk about resiliency that we don't address the problems until after they have failed in some way?

  • Alice Hill:

    Well, that is pretty typical. I call it a no more moment.

    It's when a community suffers a terrible tragedy, as New Orleans and New York has just experienced. They vow to rebuild better, and that happens.

    But with climate (AUDIO GAP) need to change that paradigm and prepare in advance, because we know these events will occur. And we can't wait for a disaster to happen. Otherwise, we will have the loss of life and damage that we're seeing now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And the bigger issue here too we see again and again with some of these extreme weather events and their impacts is outdated infrastructure, right?

    You look at those who lost power in the California wildfires, the Texans who lost power during the deep freeze. How are we going to address that? Do you see money coming from the federal government in this infrastructure bill, for example, that would address that?

  • Alice Hill:

    The infrastructure bill will help with building resiliency.

    The challenge we have is that all of our infrastructure — it's not just our energy grid, although that is critical to the safety of the United States. But it's our wastewater treatment. It's our communications system. They all rest on the fundamental assumption that the past is a safeguard for the future.

    Climate change upends that. We have no longer the climate of the past. We have a very new climate that we're really not ready for yet.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, if that is the case, then all this money seems to be going towards infrastructure and new projects, construction. Is enough being done to address the root causes of climate change?

  • Alice Hill:

    Well, we need to cut our emissions. And that is a very important task, because, otherwise, we will encounter and experience virtually unmanageable heating in the distant, more distant future.

    But, right now, we are already experiencing heating that's extremely damaging. And we need to prepare for the impacts that come with that heating.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, what about this idea we have heard about called sort of managed retreat, right? When you look at these extreme weather events, you see the consequences, and then, oftentimes, some of those communities are supported, even encouraged to go back and rebuild in those same vulnerable locations.

    Should this idea of working to relocate people to less vulnerable areas, should that be a bigger part of the conversation?

  • Alice Hill:

    We need to have this very difficult conversation about whether these places are safe to live in.

    More Americans have moved into areas of risk than areas that are not at risk, I mean, areas that could flood, be burned. And we need to have a dialogue about how that can continue and be able to keep people safe, as well as save the buildings.

    We're just at the beginning of that. And, unfortunately, managed retreat has become already a dirty word or a dirty phrase. So we will have to figure out new terminology to engage Americans with that very important discussion.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That one term, though, resilience, is heard a lot now. A lot of officials use it.

    But I want to bring to you one of the criticisms of that, which is that some people say it's used as a concept basically to avoid tough questions that say, if you focus on resilience, if you focus on infrastructure, and building and fixing the problem, what you're not focusing on is that there are some vulnerable populations that will continue to be disproportionately impacted, and why are they so vulnerable in the first place?

    I'm speaking largely about communities of color and poorer Americans. Is there some truth to that?

  • Alice Hill:

    Well, certainly, resilience is a rather mushy word. And I think that's why we have seen many politicians and others grab on to it, because it means a variety of things to people.

    But when we get to resilience to climate change, it means we need to look to the future, and it also means we need to think about the most vulnerable, because the most vulnerable are hit the hardest by a drought, by wildfire, by flooding. And we need to help those people be able to endure these impacts, as well as all other Americans.

    Climate change is going to affect every corner of not only the United States, but the globe, and the time to act is now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There has been over time some political divide over even the phrase climate change, though.

    I'm wondering, as time goes by and these extreme events are becoming more of the status quo, do you see that changing?

  • Alice Hill:

    I believe so, because it's undeniable.

    We just look at our windows and we see these impacts. Americans know — and the polling shows they know that climate change is occurring. One of the things we need is greater climate literacy to understand that these changes are irreversible in some instances, and that we can take action now to have better outcomes tomorrow if we cut our emissions and prepare.

    But those discussions need to be very robust, and they're still not happening at the level we need them to yet.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Alice Hill from the Council on Foreign Relations joining us tonight.

    Thank you so much for your time.

  • Alice Hill:

    Thank you.

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