Infrastructure Spending Is Coming. Climate Change Tells Us to Spend Wisely

May 19, 2017 | 7:43 pm
Aerial photo released by the California Department of Water Resources, showing the damaged spillway with eroded hillside in Oroville
Jamesine Rogers Gibson
Former Contributor

The news of new federal infrastructure proposals landed in a timely fashion with this year’s Infrastructure Week, including a bill introduced by the House Democrats (LIFT America Act, HR 2479) and another expected shortly from Trump’s administration. For years now, the American Society of Civil Engineers has graded the U.S.’s infrastructure at near failing (D+). With the hashtag #TimetoBuild, Infrastructure Week participants are urging policymakers to “invest in projects, technologies, and policies necessary to make America competitive, prosperous, and safe.”

We must build for the future

Conversations in Washington, D.C. and across the country over the coming weeks and months are sure to focus on what projects to build. But we first need to ask for what future are we building? Will it be a version based on similar assumptions and needs as those we experience today, or a future radically shaped by climate change? (Changing demographics and technologies will undoubtedly shape this future as well.)

It’s imperative that this changing climate future is incorporated into how we design and plan infrastructure projects, especially as we consider investing billions of taxpayer dollars into much needed enhancements to our transportation, energy, and water systems.

Climate change will shape our future

A vehicle remained stranded in the floodwater of Highway 37 on Jan. 24, 2017. Photo: Marin Independent Journal.

Engineers and planners know that, ideally, long-lived infrastructure must be built to serve needs over decades and withstand the ravages of time—including the effects of harsh weather and extended use—and with a margin of safety to account for unanticipated risks.

Much of our current infrastructure was built assuming that past trends for climate and weather were good predictors of the future. One example where I currently live would be the approach to the new Bay Bridge in Oakland, California, which was designed and built without consideration of sea level rise and will be permanently under water with 3 feet of sea level rise, a likely scenario by end of this century. Currently, more than 270,000 vehicles travel each day on this bridge between San Francisco and the East Bay.

Another near my hometown in New Jersey is LaGuardia Airport in Queens, NY, which accommodated 30 million passengers in 2016. One study shows that if seas rise another 3 feet, it could be permanently inundated; the PATH and Hoboken Terminal are at risk as well.

Instead, we must look forward to what climate models and forecasts tell us will be the “new normal”- higher temperatures, more frequent and intense extreme weather events like droughts and flooding, larger wildfires, and accelerated sea level rise. This version of the future will further stress our already strained roads, bridges, water and energy systems, as well as the natural or green infrastructure systems that can play a key role in limiting these climate impacts (e.g. flood protection). As a result, their ability to reliably and safely provide the critical services that our economy, public safety, and welfare depend on is threatened.

The reality is we are not yet systematically planning, designing and building our infrastructure with climate projections in mind.

Recent events as a preview

We can look at recent events for a preview of some of the infrastructure challenges we may face with more frequency and severity in the future because of a changing climate. (These events themselves are not necessarily the direct result of climate change but studies do show that climate change is making certain extreme events more likely, like the 2016 Louisiana floods). For example:

  • In September 2015, the Butte and Valley Fires destroyed more than one thousand structures and damaged hundreds of power lines and poles, leaving thousands of Californians without power.
  • Earlier this year, more than 188,000 residents downstream of Oroville Dam were ordered to evacuate as water releases in response to heavy rains and runoff damaged both the concrete spillway and a never-before-used earthen emergency spillway, threatening the dam.
  • Winter storms also resulted in extreme precipitation that devastated California’s roads, highways, and bridges with flooding, landslides, and erosion, resulting in roughly $860 million in repairs.

View of the Valley Fire, which destroyed nearly 77,000 acres in Northern California from Sept. 12, 2015 to Oct. 15, 2015. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard.

Similar events have been occurring all over the country, including recent highway closures from flooding along the Mississippi River. Other failures are documented in a Union of Concerned Scientists’ blog series “Planning Failures: The Costly Risks of Ignoring Climate Change,” and a report on the climate risks to our electricity systems.

Will the infrastructure we start building today still function and meet our needs in a future affected by climate change? Maybe. But unlikely, if we don’t plan differently.

Will our taxpayer investments be sound and will business continuity and public safety be assured if we don’t integrate climate risk into our infrastructure decisions? No.

If we make significant federal infrastructure investments over the next few years without designing in protections against more extreme climate forces, we risk spending much more of our limited public resources on repair, maintenance, and rebuilding down the line–a massively expensive proposition.

Building for our climate future

UCS has recently joined and started to amplify a small but growing conversation about what exactly climate-resilient infrastructure entails. This includes several of the Steering Committee Members and Sponsors of Infrastructure Week, including Brookings Institute, American Society of Civil Engineers, AECOM, WSP, and HTNB. The LIFT America Act also includes some funding dedicated to preparing infrastructure for the impacts of climate change.

For example, last year, UCS sponsored a bill, AB 2800 (Quirk), that Governor Brown signed into law, to establish the Climate-Safe Infrastructure Working Group. It brings together climate scientists, state professional engineers, architects and others to engage in a nuts-and-bolts conversation about how to better integrate climate impacts into infrastructure design, examining topics like key barriers, important information needs, and the best design approach for a range of future climate scenarios.

UCS also successfully advocated for the California State Water Resources Control Board to adopt a resolution to embed climate science into all of its existing work: permits, plans, policies, and decisions.

A few principles for climate resilient infrastructure

At UCS, we have also been thinking about key principles to ensure that infrastructure can withstand climate shocks and stresses in order to minimize disruptions to the system and safety (and the communities that depend on it) as well as safety and rebound quickly. Our report, “Towards Climate Resilience: A Framework and Principles for Science-Based Adaption”, outlines fifteen key principles for science-based adaptation.

We sought input from a panel of experts, including engineers, investors, emergency managers, climate scientists, transportation planners, water and energy utilities, and environmental justice organizations, at a recent UCS convening in Oakland, California focused on how we can start to advance policies and programs that will result in infrastructure that can withstand climate impacts.

The following principles draw largely from these sources. They are aspirational and not exhaustive, and will continue to evolve. To be climate-resilient, new and upgraded infrastructure should be built with these criteria in mind:

  • Scientifically sound: Infrastructure decisions should be consistent with the best-available climate science and what we know about impacts on human and natural systems (e.g., flexible and adaptive approaches, robust decisions, systems thinking, and planning for the appropriate magnitude and timing of change).
  • Socially just: New or upgraded infrastructure projects must empower communities to thrive, and ensure vulnerable groups can manage the climate risks they’ll face and share equitably in the benefits and costs of action. The historic under-investment in infrastructure in low-income and communities of color must be addressed.
  • Fiscally sensible: Planning should consider the costs of not adapting to climate change (e.g., failure to deliver services or costs of emergency repairs and maintenance) as well as the fiscal and other benefits of action (e.g., one dollar spent preparing infrastructure can save four dollars in recovery; investments in enhancing and protecting natural infrastructure that accommodates sea level rise, absorbs stormwater runoff, and creates parks and recreation areas).
  • Ambitiously commonsense: Infrastructure projects should avoid maladaptation, or actions that unintentionally increase vulnerabilities and reduce capacity to adapt, and provide multiple benefits. It should also protect what people cherish, and reflect a long-term vision consistent with society’s values.
  • Aligned with climate goals: Since aggressive emissions reductions are essential to slowing the rate that climate risks become more severe and common and we need to prepare for projected climate risks, infrastructure projects should align with and complement long-term climate goals – both mitigation and adaptation.

Americans want action for a safer, more climate resilient future

A 2015 study found that the majority of Americans are worried about global warming, with more than 40% believing it will harm them personally. As we engage in discussions around how to revitalize our economy, create jobs, and protect public safety by investing in infrastructure, climate change is telling us to plan and spend wisely.

From the current federal proposals to the recently enacted California transportation package, SB 1 ($52 billion) and hundreds of millions more in state and federal emergency funds for water and flood-protection, there is a lot at stake: taxpayer dollars, public safety and welfare, and economic prosperity. We would be smart to heed this familiar old adage when it comes to accounting for climate risks in these infrastructure projects: a failure to plan is a plan to fail.