Friday, September 10, 2010

Climate-Proofing Infrastructure

Even in an election year, it's hard to make infrastructure repair sound glamorous. Perhaps that helps explain why the latest annual report card on the condition of US infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers was so dismal, a "D" overall. In any given year, there are usually more exciting things to spend our money on, until we realize we haven't spent enough on these necessary props for our civilization for decades. The president's latest proposal to improve roads, rails and runways could help, though it faces skepticism from those who thought such fixes were already covered by last year's federal stimulus package. Perhaps what's missing is a green angle, and I don't mean that cynically.

If there are any aspects of infrastructure that have acquired a hint of glamour, lately, it's the ones that deal with making energy more sustainable or reducing emissions. The "smart grid" comes to mind, along with renewable power generation. As I was reading a recent New York Times op-ed concerning whether this year's bizarre weather is attributable to global warming--it's not, but it could be a taste of things to come--it occurred to me that climate-proofing our roads, power lines, train tracks, sewers, and other basic infrastructure could be at least as important as much more controversial policies addressing whether and how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, whether climate change is caused in whole, partly, or not at all by humanity, we must still deal with its consequences. And even if all greenhouse gas emissions ended tomorrow--an impossibility--the climate is predicted to continue warming for a long time. That makes adapting our infrastructure to withstand climate change a suitably green endeavor.

However we explain this year's odd weather, including massive floods, heat waves and the fires in Russia--which incidentally contributed to a spike in US ethanol prices by driving up corn prices--scientists expect our future climate to include more such events. A few years ago, "adaptation" was taboo to some environmentalists, signaling defeatism. They bet everything on "mitigation"--reducing emissions. Since mitigation may not happen soon enough, on a large enough scale globally to make a difference, nothing we do can avert the need for adaptation to a world of less benign weather. In that respect any jobs created by a concerted effort to shore up our infrastructure to cope with more frequent weather events would be just as green as those associated with building and installing wind turbines and solar panels.

What might this entail? Well, most of the detail is outside my area of expertise, but if a bridge needs to be replaced, perhaps the new one should be designed to provide more clearance between the river and the roadway, with higher floodwaters in mind. Similarly, should highways be built (or rebuilt) with better drainage where flooding is a growing risk, or using concrete or asphalt formulated to withstand more extreme heat and cold? And having spent more than a decade living in regions subject to high winds and ice storms, putting utility lines underground makes lots of sense even without climate change, and it could become indispensable with it. In some respects this merely boils down to widening the routine assumptions that engineers make concerning the conditions that a piece of infrastructure must withstand during its lifetime, in order to cope with more uncertainty.

All of this costs money and competes with other priorities. The more resilient (and expensive) we make each project, the fewer of them we're going to do, unless we make upgrading our infrastructure--and not just the semi-glamorous parts--a much higher priority than it has been. That would require a different mindset, and not just with regard to the risks of climate change. Nor are the political rewards likely to be quick, because if anything, it involves the antithesis of the "shovel-ready" projects the stimulus targeted, since much will need to be rethought first. That wouldn't have deterred the generations of Americans that built the systems that must now be replaced; it shouldn't deter us, either, particularly if we recognize the connection to what many see as the greatest challenge of our century.

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