By Jamesine Rogers Gibson
This has been a year of extremes in California. We’ve experienced all-time temperature highs (statewide and regionally), a deadly heat wave, the most destructive and lethal wildfires in the state’s history, and the second wettest winter on record following a historic five year drought. The impacts have been staggering: many lives lost, thousands of properties destroyed, and costly infrastructure damage.
We know that extreme weather events will become more common and intense as a result of climate change. Such events multiply threats to infrastructure across the state, endangering community well-being, public health and safety, and the economy. A new white paper released by UCS today – Built to Last: Challenges and Opportunities for Climate-Smart Infrastructure in California –makes the case for investing limited public resources in infrastructure that can withstand climate change impacts and keep Californians safe.
A better path forward
Extreme weather-related infrastructure disruptions in recent years – from power losses and train derailments to bridge and spillway failures, road closures, and low water supplies – provide us with a sobering preview of the future challenges facing California’s infrastructure systems. (See this map for other recent examples.) The type, frequency, and severity of these climate-related hazards will vary by location, but no region of California or infrastructure type will be left untouched.
While the state of our dams, pipes, levees, bridges, and roads is mediocre at best (they received a combined C- on ASCE’s 2012 report card), the need to upgrade or replace our water, power, and transportation systems is a golden opportunity to plan, design, and build these systems with climate resilience in mind. The UCS white paper describes a set of principles for ‘climate-smart’ infrastructure and then highlights barriers and opportunities for improving and accelerating their integration into public infrastructure decisions.
What is climate-smart infrastructure?
Climate-smart infrastructure is designed and built with future climate projections in mind, rather than relying on historic data that are no longer a good predictor of our climate future. It bolsters the resilience of the Golden State’s communities and economy to the impacts of extreme weather and climate change instead of leaving communities high and dry, overheated, or underwater.
Climate-smart also can reduce heat-trapping emissions, spend limited public funds wisely, and prioritize equitable infrastructure decisions. This last point is important because some communities in California are more vulnerable to both climate impacts and infrastructure failure due in part to decades of underinvestment and disinvestment, especially in many low-income communities, communities of color, and tribal communities.
When done right, the results can be innovative infrastructure solutions, like the Blue Lake Rancheria microgrid, that bring social, economic, health, and environmental benefits to Californians AND protect us from the weather extremes we are inevitably facing. More examples of climate-smart principles in action are described in the white paper, and some are shown in the accompanying StoryMap.
We’re just getting started
The Golden State is beginning to integrate climate change into its plans and investments and recently released high-level guidance for state agencies. These and other efforts underway at the state level must be accelerated and implemented in a consistent and analytically rigorous, climate-smart manner.
This is especially important in light of the billions of taxpayer dollars the state is planning on spending on new long-lived infrastructure projects. Many more billions will be spent on maintenance and retrofitting of existing infrastructure over the next few years. These projects must be able to function reliably and safely despite worsening climate impacts over the coming decades. Otherwise, we risk building costly systems that will fail well before their intended lifespans.
Barriers can be overcome
There are still many reasons why public infrastructure is not being upgraded or built today in a more consistently climate-smart way. They generally fall into three categories: (1) inadequate data, tools, and standards; (2) insufficient financial and economic assessments and investments; and (3) institutional capacity and good governance are lacking.
For example, many engineers, planners, and other practitioners still don’t have enough readily usable information to easily insert climate impacts into their existing decision-making processes and economic analyses. In addition, there has not been enough attention focused on the unique risks and infrastructure vulnerabilities faced by low-income communities, communities of color, and other underserved communities.
The UCS white paper includes several recommendations on how to overcome the barriers we identified. They focus on ways to improve and accelerate the integration of our climate-smart principles into public sector infrastructure decisions. For instance, they range from increasing state and local government staff’s technical capacity and updating standards and codes to better incorporating climate-related costs and criteria, as well as climate resilience benefits, into project evaluations and funding decisions. Others include better planning in advance for more climate-smart disaster recovery efforts, ensuring better interjurisdictional coordination at the local and state government levels, and addressing the funding gap. Additional recommendations and specifics can be found in the paper. All infrastructure solutions should help advance more equitable outcomes, so equity is integrated throughout these recommendations
Building to last? There’s reason for optimism
Progress is being made, as evidenced by the recent state actions mentioned above and a growing number of climate-smart projects and local solutions. For example, Los Angeles has begun a process to update its building codes, policies, and procedures, called Building Forward L.A. San Francisco is incorporating sea level rise into its capital planning. Plus, there’s an ever-expanding list of novel funding mechanisms for these types of infrastructure investment. But we need more, and soon, to help inform the tough decisions ahead as we adapt to climate change and invest in long-lived infrastructure projects. Thoughtful implementation of our recommendations can help clear the way.
California governments should grab hold of the opportunities before them to spend limited resources in climate-smart ways that increase our infrastructure’s ability to provide California’s communities and businesses with the needed services to thrive now and in a changing climate future.