President-elect Obama has tasked his new economic team with designing an ambitious job-creation initiative focused primarily on infrastructure improvements.  From now on, the design and siting of bridges, roads, and public buildings will need to take into account climate change impacts, lest we worsen our vulnerability to sea level rise, fiercer storms, droughts, floods, and the like.  The savvy team recruited for this project is likely aware of this, but may quickly discover how poorly we are set up to apply climate science to practical problem-solving.  It’s time for that to change, too.

Post by Anne Polansky

Obama’s plan to jump-start the economy is an elegant solution to two problems:  Our aging infrastructure is in need of repair and modernization, and the massive job-creation needed to fix that is a strong antidote to troubling unemployment levels.  Incorporating ways to ramp up renewable energy use within this context is also essential for moving to a more sustainable economy and for mitigating climate change.  Going forward, we must “plan for the best”—pursuing mitigation strategies vigorously—as we “prepare for the worst”—building climate resiliency and adaptation measures into nearly every decision, so we can withstand the climate shocks already in the pipeline as a result of past and continuing CO2 emissions. 

Our transportation sector is particularly vulnerable to climate change.  A report (7.4 MB) issued by the National Research Council earlier this year warns that:

Climate change will affect transportation primarily through increases in several types of weather and climate extremes. Climate warming over the next 50 to 100 years will be manifested by increases in very hot days and heat waves, increases in Arctic temperatures, rising sea levels coupled with storm surges and land subsidence, more frequent intense precipitation events, and increases in the intensity of strong hurricanes. The impacts will vary by mode of transportation and region of the country, but they will be widespread and costly in both human and economic terms and will require significant changes in the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of transportation systems.

The NRC press release outlines what the federal government can do:

The report calls for the federal government to have a strong role in implementing many of its recommendations that require broad-based action or regulation, such as the creation of a clearinghouse for information on transportation and climate change; the establishment of a research program to re-evaluate existing design standards and develop new standards for addressing climate change; creation of an interagency working group on adaptation; changes in federal regulations regarding long-range planning guidelines and infrastructure rehabilitation requirements; and re-evaluation of the National Flood Insurance Program and updating flood insurance rate maps with climate change in mind.

All of these are good suggestions and should be acted upon in concert with transition planning, not just at the Department of Transportation, but across all of government.

Another report could help guide major infrastructure decisions in the Gulf Coast region: Impacts of Climate Variability and Change on Transportation Systems and Infrastructure—Gulf Coast Study was issued by the Climate Change Science Program in March of this year.  Lead authors Michael Savonis at the Department of Transportation and Virginia Burkett at the US Geological Survey are good points of contact for this work. 

In August, New York City Mayor Bloomberg launched a Climate Change Task Force, funded by a $350,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation (see their press release) to develop adaptation strategies to secure the NYC’s infrastructure from the effects of climate change.  A diverse group of experts is “creating a coordinated plan to adapt [to climate change] our roads, bridges, and tunnels; mass-transit network; water and sewer systems; electric, gas, and steam production and distribution systems; telecommunication networks; and other critical infrastructure.”  This process should serve as a model for other cities and towns across America facing the same issues—though, with federal money to support it.