Much of Columbus, Ohio, was without power for days this past June as the local electric utility struggled to manage simultaneous impacts of powerful storms and a heat wave. Many buildings lost air conditioning, and the city faced a potential public health crisis. Officials directed residents to several cooling centers, including a museum that was paid $60,000 per day to open its doors to the public.

According to Columbus City Council member Rob Dorans, this fee is just one of the many expenses added to the municipal books as rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns have strained the infrastructure in the Ohio capital. Since 2019, Columbus has spent more than $62 million on flood mitigation projects and $21 million on a flood tunnel designed to prevent stormwater runoff from overpowering the sewer system. 

“The biggest variable that we’re dealing with now when you talk about these sorts of infrastructure investments is being caused by a changing climate,” Dorans said. “That is the driving force behind these investments.”

Variations of this story are playing out across the country as municipalities seek ways to ensure continuity of essential services while watching environmental conditions become more stressful than their infrastructure was designed to cope with. Often, they receive little help from higher levels of government.

“In the United States, we pay for our public infrastructure largely at the state and local level, and I don’t think people appreciate that,” said Christine Sgarlata Chung, an Albany Law School professor who studies municipal finance. In 2014, state and local governments paid 88% of the nation’s costs to operate and maintain transportation and water infrastructure.

“It is really local taxpayers who are bearing enormous burdens associated with climate change,” Chung said. “If I could change one thing about the conversation, it would be to get people to understand that.” 

The bill is coming due

Financial pressures facing Columbus and other Ohio cities as a result of global warming are the subject of “The Bill is Coming Due,” a report published this year by three local policy and environmental groups. The authors identified 50 actions that they say municipalities need to take in response to climate change assuming a moderate level of future emissions. They then calculated the cumulative price tag for 10 of these actions across 16 cities of varying size. Considering measures such as installing air conditioning in public buildings, protecting drinking water from harmful algal blooms, and pruning trees to protect power lines during storms, they arrived at a highly conservative estimate of $1.8 to $5.9 billion in new annual costs by midcentury.

According to one of the authors, Nolan Rutschilling of the Ohio Environmental Council, the breadth of climate impacts described in the report came as a surprise to many readers in the state. “Most folks associate flooding or extreme weather and storm damage, maybe, with climate change; certainly, in the Midwest, that’s often how we see it. But I think topics like increased wind and storms impacting power line maintenance and grid resiliency, or erosion, or having to elevate roads along waterways and floodplains – those are things that I think a lot of local officials aren’t looking at yet.”

A number of municipalities and regional planning organizations have reached out since the report was published, he said, seeking a more granular understanding of the costs in the coming decades. “But those conversations always end with a crucial question, which is, ‘Where do we go from here? What can we do to prevent this? Where do we get funding for this?’”

Few local governments are flush with cash. Funding questions are particularly worrisome in cities already struggling to meet basic needs like safe drinking water and reliable public transportation. “It is often our poorest and most vulnerable communities that are at the greatest risk from climate change and are least able to pay for both mitigation and remediation,” said Chung. 

In Columbus, steady population growth and a strong economy give the local government a sound economic basis for increasing resiliency, according to Council member Dorans, although many challenges remain. The picture is different in Youngstown, Ohio, a three-hour drive away. With a shrinking population and high poverty rate, the former steel town has fewer options for raising funds. 

“Our city, with no outside help from the federal or state government, is having to pay for $150 million of upgrades to our sewer system because of overflow rainwater,” said Youngstown City Council member Lauren McNally. “We don’t have more people moving into the city; we can’t collect more income tax to cover these added costs. So they just fall back on the residents that we do have, the majority of them being an aging population on a fixed income and/or below the poverty line.”

Bills rise, quality of life sinks

Even as residents’ bills rise, their quality of life is declining as environmental conditions shift, McNally said. “What do people care about? They care about their roads being cleared in the winter. They care about their streets being paved in the summer. They care about their parks being places of safety and a welcoming environment. They care about their water and wastewater infrastructure … Those are the things that affect their daily lives, and those are the things that are going to be affected by climate change. We’ve already seen it.”

In the absence of federal or state grants for infrastructure improvements, well-off and struggling communities alike often turn to the municipal bond market. But wealthier governments have better access to this market, and this gap will only grow as the climate changes, Chung warns. As global warming puts further strain on urban systems, feedback loops within the bond market will make it even harder for poor communities to obtain funding.

These challenges will likely reverberate far beyond the borders of individual cities. Chung believes that the current patchwork system of infrastructure financing puts the entire nation at risk as climate impacts intensify, given the complexity and interconnectedness of the systems Americans rely on for their everyday needs.

Solutions…but no silver bullet

There’s no silver bullet for addressing this problem, she said. Instead, a number of policy solutions will be required, working in harmony across different levels of government and in different geographies. She cites New York State’s Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) as one example. Like many public benefits corporations across the nation, EFC receives federal grants to carry out work in the common interest – in this case, improving water infrastructure across New York. 

“They basically gather up smaller municipality projects, and then they go out and raise money,” Chung said, creating a bond offering sufficient to fund each of the local water and sewer projects included in the package. “So you don’t have, like, a small town in upstate New York trying to go out and raise money from Wall Street, because it’d be prohibitively expensive.”

The recently passed Infrastructure Reduction Act and Bipartisan infrastructure Law create important new sources of federal funding for local programs, said The Ohio Environmental Council’s Rutschilling. He also pointed to examples of cities around the country that have developed creative financing solutions, including Athens, Ohio’s voluntary carbon fee and Portland, Oregon’s climate-focused surcharge on large retailers.

A recent settlement in which opioid distributors agreed to pay $808 million in Ohio offers another helpful precedent, he said. Under the terms of this deal, 85 percent of the funds collected are to be distributed within local communities hit particularly hard by the drug epidemic. Local and regional governments could pursue similar litigation against fossil fuel companies, holding them responsible for skyrocketing expenses.

Rutschilling was careful to note, however, that some cities are better positioned than others to pursue new funding sources to manage climate impacts. “If you view climate change as a disruptor, communities are going to have to get creative in how they raise funding and how they approach those problems,” he said. “And that just goes to show why reducing emissions now is so important, because not all communities are going to have the resources, the staff, the capacity to really pursue a lot of the avenues I just mentioned.”