Climate-Safe Infrastructure for All: California Working Group Report Provides Comprehensive Recommendations

September 5, 2018 | 4:53 pm
Jamesine Rogers Gibson
Former Contributor

Nearly two years ago, the Climate-Safe Infrastructure bill (AB 2800, Quirk, 2016) became law and established the Climate-Safe Infrastructure Working Group (CSIWG) to develop recommendations to the California legislature on how to build and design our infrastructure to be safer for Californians in the face of growing climate extremes. Since then, unprecedented wildfires and mudslides, record-breaking temperatures and precipitation have added an exclamation point to the importance of this group’s work in preparing our infrastructure to keep us safe, as we’ve experienced the risks and what’s at stake. Today, the CSIWG released its report, Paying it Forward: The Path Toward Climate-Safe Infrastructure in California, which recommends an ambitious and attainable path forward.

The problem

Traditionally, engineers designed infrastructure assuming that past climate trends were good predictors of the future. With climate change, this is no longer a reasonable assumption, and is even a downright dangerous one, as recent infrastructure failures have shown us. Yet many engineering codes, standards, and practices still plan for the future by looking at the past.

They also face the additional challenge of planning and designing long-lived infrastructure for a wide range of potential futures and addressing inherent uncertainties in climate projections. At the same time, the state is deciding over the next few years how to spend more than $60 billion of taxpayer dollars on infrastructure – infrastructure that we need to perform well for many decades. A recent study found that for every $1 invested in preparing for natural disasters, society can save $6. We need to get this right, and soon.

UCS sponsored AB 2800 to address this disconnect between what climate change projections tell us about the future and how they are inadequately integrated into state infrastructure plans and design, engineering, investment, and construction decisions.

The Climate-Safe Path for All

Click to enlarge.

Fourteen prominent engineers, scientists, and architects came together for a first-of-its-type, multisectoral, state-level initiative focused on how to design state infrastructure for climate change and address critical needs and barriers to doing so. They define climate-safe infrastructure as sustainable, adaptable, equitable, and low- (or no-) carbon infrastructure that’s resilient when faced with climate-related stressors and shocks, so that it can keep Californians safe.

Science is key to climate-safe infrastructure decisions, but alone it’s not enough. Their insightful recommendations therefore touch upon other key steps in the infrastructure lifecycle while also providing a list of information needs and climate-sensitive codes. One of the far-reaching recommendations is adoption by the Legislature of “The Climate-Safe Path for All” as official state policy.

(This mammoth report – at 150+ pages – is wide-ranging and very detailed. In future blogs, I will analyze other findings and recommendations in greater depth.)

Building safer

The “climate-safe” portion of the Climate-Safe Path for All refers to a two-pronged approach to protecting our infrastructure, and the communities and economy that depend on it. State agencies would continue pursuing aggressive reductions in global warming pollution, in order to have the best chance of avoiding some of the worst impacts of climate change. At the same time, they would plan and eventually build long-lasting infrastructure (like bridges, roads, dams, etc.) to withstand the climate impacts from a high-emissions, “business as usual” pathway.

The Climate-Safe Path for All consists of global warming emissions reductions in line with the Paris Agreement, and adapting long-lived infrastructure for climate impacts under a business-as-usual scenario. The Working Group considers it the safest approach given our current high-emissions trajectory and the long-lasting nature of global warming pollution. Social equity is another key component of the Path.

Rather than requiring everything be built today for the high-emissions scenario decades from now, the Working Group recommends taking an adaptive, phased approach over time. This would preserve flexibility to respond as new information becomes available while also helping save lives and money.

A very simple but illustrative example of this type of adaptive approach would be designing a waterfront roadway with future sea level rise in mind. The road would be built (or modified if already existing) to be protective over the near term and allow updates, like increasing its height, expanding nearby green space to absorb more water, and moving the road or identifying alternative transportation routes. Pre-determined triggers or thresholds set design updates and/or policy actions in motion (e.g., a specific amount of sea level rise or number of flooding events). And there would be plans in place to minimize disruptions that do occur and hasten recovery.

It’s a relatively new concept for infrastructure decisions that makes sense in theory. I do have some questions about its application. How are triggers selected, and in an equitable way? How does this apply to less easily adapted, large-scale projects, like bridges or dams? Money must be set aside before these updates are necessary and policies put in place to require them, so they do not rely on a conducive economic and political environment at the time of needed changes. In addition, the thresholds should be monitored and reviewed regularly so they are observed well in advance of disaster.

Building for all

In addition to the “climate-safe” part of the recommendation, the other important piece of the Working Group’s recommendation is the priority focus on how to deliver “for all.” The report rightly acknowledges that there is no overarching set of criteria for informing and prioritizing infrastructure decisions that’s consistent across sectors, and that’s a problem. How do we spend limited public funds wisely and fairly without such common criteria?

The Working Group recommends reducing social inequities as one of three key criteria for prioritizing infrastructure projects.

The Working Group proposes prioritizing projects that “most reduce inequality and increase opportunity,” in addition to also addressing the greatest climate risks and biggest infrastructure investment needs. Many low-income communities and communities of color face both a “climate gap” and an “infrastructure gap.” This reality must change in order for our infrastructure to truly benefit and protect all Californians. It will be a significant undertaking, but hugely important to get right as well. The Working Group’s recommendations also highlight specific ways to address equity throughout the infrastructure decision-making process, from planning to design to spending decisions.

Looking ahead

With the release of its report, the Climate-Safe Infrastructure Working Group has delivered strategic and sound recommendations at a time when repeated extreme weather events remind us of the need for action. We encourage the Legislature and Strategic Growth Council to strongly consider their recommendations and keep the momentum going. For example, an immediately helpful next step would be to prioritize the climate-sensitive codes and standards to begin updating now.

With billions of dollars slated to be spent on infrastructure over the next few years, we must seize this rare opportunity to spend it wisely and equitably. It is time to ensure that our infrastructure can truly keep all Californians safe in the face of more frequent and severe climate extremes.