• Infrastructure World

The Climate Change Challenge

Updated: Aug 30, 2020

We, at IW, have been concerned about “Climate Change” and its infrastructure impacts for many years now. Fourteen years ago, one of us gave a talk at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), on addressing 21st Century Infrastructure Challenges. At that time we emphasized, among many other things, the urgent need to begin planning for the infrastructure changes and other impacts of climate change. Looking back, we see that this was just one voice in the wilderness in warning:

“Infrastructure planners must start thinking about the consequences of environmental changes – whether they are caused by global warming, different cycles, and intensities of storms, or other phenomena. The key now is how to adapt to the potential of rising seas, flooding, more intense and more frequent storms, and global weather shifts. With respect to global warming, nations, regions, states, and cities have to start planning now to adapt our infrastructure. Options for addressing global warming include increasing fuel efficiency, using biofuels and other alternatives, designing hydrogen vehicles, and capturing carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Infrastructure planners must consider what changes we need to make in order to live safely in our new environment. For example, agriculture might be moved to other areas. In some countries, mass migration away from flood plains may be warranted. Our infrastructures must be hardened, and building codes must be modified to meet the consequences of global warming, should they occur. Regardless of the causes of global warming – or whether one believes global warming is occurring – it would be imprudent not to plan for these possible consequences.”[1]

At that time there was still a substantial debate raging on the science of global warming. Some were denying it was even happening, others arguing that it was happening but was not caused by human activity, and still others insisted it was happening but was not permanent, and so forth.

However, we have now studied the issue extensively, and have been convinced for some time that global warming is real and serious, it has been scientifically proven, that it is man-made and that it is caused by excessive CO2 released into the environment, most significantly by the use of fossil fuels for the production of energy and for use in transportation. We are not in the camp that continues to say “well even if we’re not sure, we should tackle the climate change problem for insurance reasons”. Or “let’s create an international treaty” as we did for the ozone problems. That is too much equivocation. We must tackle the climate change problem head-on and for the right reasons. Not to do so will lead to disaster.

We urgently need to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and our impact on the global environment. That is absolutely critical. But for various reasons, we have never had any great confidence that we would confront this issue adequately and felt that we would probably instead equivocate, postpone, avoid and delay action for as long as possible. Why? Unfortunately, I think we all know why. As a nation and as a world community we struggle with the overwhelming influence of big global interests such as fossil fuel companies; electric power utilities; big financial institutions with vested interests; political powers controlled behind the scenes by big moneyed organizations; corruption in the form of outright bribery or the more common political “pork”; and the natural conservatism of “the establishment” fighting any changes to their status quo.

In addition, there seems to be a built-in hesitancy for humans to worry too much about problems that they perceive as far in the future. Instead, we seem more wired to address threats in the here-and-now. These factors all converge to either deny, delay or avoid confronting the matter. Now – added to all those other impediments to action is the new reality of a global pandemic that has wiped out jobs, shredded state and national budgets, and altered the focus of politicians and citizens around the globe. And in all cases, we dream that in any event technology will save us.

But climate change rages on, polar ice caps continue to melt, cities increasingly flood, island communities sink into the ocean, summer temperatures continue to rise, hurricanes increase in frequency and intensity, wildfires tear across the globe, and the problems of coping with the impacts of all these changes are as omnipresent as ever.

Among the things noted in the 2006 MIT talk on climate change were issues which are as

important today as they were then. These included:

• World population growth and movement to urban centers

• Transformation of the global energy base

• Water scarcity, allocation, and equity

• The real economics of oil and natural gas (what if externalities are costed “all in” and subsidies eliminated)

• Alternative energy and renewables – cost, availability and penetration opportunities in the future

• Possible renewal of nuclear power programs and its implications

• Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies

• More national energy independence

• Jobs and economic growth

• Trillions of dollars of new Infrastructure and immense R&D requirements

• What to do about power plants approaching the end of their useful lives and large parts of industrialized the world’s energy systems that may be questionable because of CO2 emissions

• Difficulty of curtailing CO2 in next decade given the global growth ambitions of developed and developing nations

• Difficulty transitioning energy and transportation legacy systems (tuning over the transport fleet, etc.) coupled with the difficulty of implementing viable alternatives

• Sea level rise and flooding of coastal areas – impacting natural environments, human population groups and major infrastructure

• Changing weather patterns, storm intensifications, and impacts

• Water shortages, shifting agricultural zones, country/regional economic impacts and population migrations

• Challenges associated with reaching international agreements and taming nationalistic instincts

As we said then, and as we say now, we need to determine what must be done to cope with all this, decide how to tackle these requirements and get programs in place to address the challenge. The consequences are upon us and we must deal with them now. Further delay is not optional, both for mitigation and adaptation actions.

Some of these matters, which are all associated with climate change, will be discussed in more detail in other blogs to come. But the point we are making here is that time has run out for avoiding the problems associated with climate change before disastrous infrastructure and other terrible impacts occur. We can and must try to lessen the continued rise of CO2 emissions that brought us to this crisis, but regardless of the degree to which future reductions are achieved, those impacts are upon us now no matter what we do. We can strive to change the world’s energy usage patterns and other destructive behavior to avoid making the crisis worse, but we must also, simultaneously and urgently, work to ameliorate the catastrophic impacts of what is already underway. Those impacts include sea-level rise; dramatic temperature change; massive storms and forest fires of ever-increasing severity and frequency; waves of environmental refugees pouring across borders; massive extinctions of many, even entire, species of plants and animals; disease eruptions; and almost unimaginable human, infrastructure, financial and economic dislocations and losses. It is far too late to imagine that even as we attempt to curtail the emissions that are causing and exacerbating global warming, we won’t simultaneously be knee-deep in confronting the physical impacts of these now unavoidable consequences.

What’s to be done? We must immediately begin to plan and take very expensive and disruptive actions to modify, fortify, reconstruct, and reimagine our global and local infrastructure to confront and adapt to this quickly emerging crisis. Slowly but surely, many communities around the globe are awakening to this reality. To quote Samuel Johnson: “Nothing so concentrates the mind as the sight of the gallows”. We can now see our own gallows being erected. Understanding is starting to creep in. The creeks are rising; the ocean is creeping into our coastal cities with increasing frequency; houses are crashing into the seas as frontal beaches erode; subways are being flooded; animals, fish, insects, and entire habitats are disappearing. Californians are suffering massive power outages and the destruction of entire communities from wildfires; and deadly heatwaves are being recorded around the globe. Australia and Brazil have lost countless animals, houses, habitats, and property to forest fires. Hurricanes have devastated numerous cities and communities and even complete islands. Some of this would have happened anyway – but the scope, frequency, ensuing loss of life, property damage, and disastrous consequences of all of it have unquestionably been greatly intensified by global warming.

Scientists vividly describe how higher sea levels are coinciding with more dangerous hurricanes and typhoons that “move more slowly and drop more rain, contributing to more powerful storm surges that can strip away everything in their path.” A 2018 article based on US National Weather Service data found that between1963 and 2012, storm surges were the actual causes of almost half of all deaths from Atlantic hurricanes.[2] Global warming only magnifies this threat.

The upshot is that already – in rural villages, island communities in the Pacific and in low lying coastal and riverside communities around the world, people are being forced to migrate to higher ground, and millions are increasingly vulnerable to flood risks and other effects of climate change. Transport corridors, housing, telecommunications infrastructure, port facilities, and other critical infrastructure are all threatened by these rising seas, as are vulnerable coastal vegetation, marine and wildlife habitats.

We cannot change those looming impacts. That train is gone. We can try to prevent or delay the worst of the blows, but we will suffer these climate-change induced effects regardless. We can, however, plan various measures to adapt-to or to mitigate[3] the worst of the damage to our built-communities, populations, and natural habitats. Indeed, communities are planning and, in some cases, already building seawalls, elevating or relocating road and municipal transport systems, planting mangroves and other vegetation to absorb water, repairing protective coral reefs, extending wetlands areas, designing sloping coastal embankments to prevent storm surge inundation, relocating housing, introducing rooftop gardens, painting roofs and roadways white or gray to reduce urban heat islands, reinforcing critical buildings to be flood-resistant, and, perhaps most importantly starting to both reinforce and change our energy networks to be cleaner (certainly), but also much more resilient given the increased climate and other natural disruptions and disasters that are already reshaping our world. The specifics of what’s being done, and what’s not, will be detailed in future blog postings, but our message here is that the future is indeed upon us and there’s no more road to kick this can down.


[1] MIT Press – IMPACT, Spring 2006; (Talk by Cordell W. Hull) “21st Century Infrastructure Challenges” By Susan C. Cass [2] National Geographic; https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/sea-level-rise/ [3] Global Center on Adaptation; https://gca.org/news/global-center-begins-transformative-next-chapter-will-co-host-global-commission

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