The Vatican recently published a 45-page document “Mensuram Bonam” [Good Measure], which calls on Catholic institutions and believers to engage in “faith-consistent investing” that, among other priorities, urges investors to favor companies whose business models are consistent with the emission reduction goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Addressing climate change today is laser-focused on reducing reliance on fossil fuels and investing in renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar energy. Such policy priorities derive, in part, from sound science, but also proceed from beliefs that are not necessarily linked to science. Unfortunately, such popular beliefs may reduce humanity’s ability to prevent or mitigate extreme weather or climate-related hardship.
Many of us favor better infrastructure until it exerts the least impact on the environment, though it’s impossible to build anything of strategic significance without affecting the environment. And without infrastructure we cannot effectively prevent or soften the impact of floods, droughts and scarce rainfall, wildfires, fragile energy infrastructure, and the like. Yes, fossil fuels are required to construct and operate strategic infrastructure, but the suffering of untold millions can also be reduced. Or do we prefer to live with the suffering caused by extreme weather or climate-related events for the foreseeable future?
Rather than today’s scattergun, repair or replace, lower-impact infrastructure, we could instead identify “national imperative” strategic infrastructure and make such infrastructure a top priority. Such protective and resource—water, agricultural products—enhancing measures, done well, as in the Netherlands and Israel, can alleviate human suffering and resource needs sooner and more tangibly than trading energy credits and nebulous climate programs that may take decades, or longer, to produce significant impacts, especially as a number of large economy nations are doing little about fossil fuels. Strategic infrastructure can be a third way between zero-impact environmental policy and a laissez-faire attitude toward the environment.
Thousands of years ago, the Romans built aqueducts, roads, and other infrastructure that still exist today. Moving people and moving water were essential to the commerce and stability of the Roman empire. Aqueducts to move water consisted of open conduits, tunnels, and pipelines. One such aboveground and underground aqueduct system that supplied Rome extended sixty miles. It’s estimated that Roman roads total tens of thousands of miles.
The Dutch miracle involved (and still involves) employing infrastructure to greatly soften flooding in a country where almost half of the land is below sea level or less than five feet above sea level. An integral element of the Dutch approach is “making room for the water.” A sophisticated and integrated system of dikes, barriers that block off the sea at high levels, pumps, and canals, along with areas designated for planned flooding during catastrophic weather events comprises one of the most elegant “national imperative” infrastructure approaches in the history of the world.
America between the 1850s and 1950s built many large infrastructure projects to move resources, supplies, and people: the transcontinental railroad and a national network of railroads, the Hoover Dam and other water management and canal projects, a federal highway system. In California, big water infrastructure projects brought water from the north, where most of California’s fresh water originates to the southern two-thirds of the state with most of the demand.
Modern Israel converted a land of which only 20% was arable into an agricultural marvel. Micro (drip) irrigation that delivers water as needed directly to plant roots irrigates over 70% of crops. Israel moves water great distances, recycles most of its wastewater for agricultural uses and operates large-scale seawater treatment that requires significant energy to produce drinking water from salt water. In short, a land that was once mostly desert now produces an excess of water.
Certainly, many past infrastructure projects exerted severe burdens on the environment and unequal social burdens. But today, measures such as compensatory habitats, drip irrigation, energy efficient powering of pumps and other mechanical systems, “greener” strategies to “make room for the water,” trenchless technologies for underground infrastructure, more versatile and durable materials of construction, superior water filtration membranes, smart asset management systems to monitor and optimize performance while minimizing adverse effects, detection technology that provides real-time alerts, enable us to build large infrastructure with manageable environmental impacts while preventing or softening the impact of extreme weather or climate-related events on people.
Notwithstanding these measures, mistakes will inevitably occur with large and complex infrastructure projects that will affect the environment. But with properly deployed What Could Go Wrong explorations prior to project planning, negative impacts can be greatly reduced.
For the foreseeable future, we will not be able to build and operate such high-impact infrastructure with renewable energy alone. But as never before, we can build infrastructure that alleviates suffering and promotes a better quality of life while also protecting the environment. If many today believe climate change denial is irresponsible, so too is turning our backs on protective infrastructure because it doesn’t meet a zero environmental impact test. As my graduate advisor was wont to say, tongue-in-cheek, “Zero is quite a low number.”
“Faith-consistent investing” should consider this third way, too.
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