Loose-fit infrastructure can better account for climate change
The Biden infrastructure plan is out and generating a flurry of dialogue about how the nation should invest in the core systems that we rely on. As many are pointing out, when infrastructure works we often forget that it’s there. We take for granted that the backbones of our mobility, water, energy, information and other critical services will work. Understanding how they work, how thousands of people every day ensure these critical systems remain running, is generally not a forefront issue for most people. As climate change effects become more pronounced this complacency will need to change. Maybe there is a better way to invest in infrastructure — differently than we’ve done in the past — to reflect the deep uncertainty of the future.
Infrastructure are not simply hardware but instead processes that we design and implement to achieve particular functions, like access to energy, or mobility. This requires hardware (technologies) and software (financial, governing codes, management cultures, policies and goals), and increasingly the management of information. The goal of infrastructure investments should be to modernize these processes.
Infrastructure and the environment have an intertwined relationship. Infrastructure assets are designed with particular climate conditions in mind, and nearly all designs do not take future climate impacts into account. The amount of water a stormwater pipe can handle or heat a powerline can withstand are among the tens of thousands of decisions that are made every day by infrastructure managers. Undersize a pipe and roads flood. Insufficiently design a power line and a heat wave may cause a blackout. These dances with the environment exist for every single asset in our infrastructure. Climate and how we are changing it must be planned for to ensure services remain reliable. Any investment in infrastructure could be viewed as an investment in reducing the impacts of climate change on our nation.
The core challenge is not how we make our infrastructure robust in a changing climate, but that as climate change accelerates there is a growing disconnect between what our infrastructure systems can do and what we need them to do. This growing disconnect represents a loss of control. Our infrastructure is designed to last a long time, and large upfront capital costs are justified because of the very long-term benefits to society. This way of thinking only works if infrastructure systems remain reliable and do what we need them to do. Should roads always remain functional under worsening extreme events? Should investments in roads today be able to support a fleet of electric, connected and autonomous cars. In designing for today’s vehicle technologies will they be able to accommodate future fleets? A changing world necessitates new ways of thinking about infrastructure. And with deep uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of climate impacts, as well as emerging technologies, smarter investments now could enable a pivot in the future.
Any plan about how infrastructure investments should be made should be rooted in “loose-fit strategies” that give us the ability to adapt to an uncertain future. Like buying a slightly bigger coat for a rapidly growing teenager, we need something that works now and also continues to perform over time. The crux of the challenge is that climate is changing faster than infrastructure change. We need to flip this paradigm and have adaptive infrastructure. First, we should shift how we view infrastructure, from solutions to interventions. And our interventions will need to shift as we learn more about how the climate is changing. Whereas in the past we’ve emphasized long-term assets as solutions for some most-likely future, we now could shift to empowering infrastructure managers with the resources, knowledge and decision-making space needed to adapt.
The infrastructure community has been developing loose-fit strategies for climate change for some time but haven’t yet had an opportunity to unleash these insights. Assets instantiated for decades with limited capacity to change as climate changes are problematic. Instead we could invest in agility and flexibility, assets that are modular, multi-functional, and scalable (up and down).
The governance and management of infrastructure seems ripe for innovation. For example, the dynamic adaptive policy pathways approach calls for a commitment to short-term actions coupled with efforts to keep options open if change is needed. Robust decision-making helps identify strategies that can change over time as new information comes to light, with a focus on minimizing regret. A water utility in California used robust decision-making to develop an adaptive infrastructure plan and choose near-term and long-term strategies to ensure reliable water availability under climate change.
We shouldn’t focus wholly on adaptation and commit ourselves to a future where greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. Winding greenhouse gases down to zero reduces future climate impacts, so investments will need to be made across adaptation and mitigation strategies. If we ignore mitigation, we allow climate conditions to accelerate, and our ability to respond at pace will diminish.
We’re already feeling the effects of human-induced climate change and we must adapt our infrastructure to protect people and services. But in doing so mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions must also be a priority, and we need to look for win-win infrastructure opportunities to do both. For example, a protected bike lane that includes green infrastructure can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also reduce the flooding impacts of storms.
Policymakers should view infrastructure investments as not simply hardware fixes and upgrades, but as efforts to close the gap between what our critical services can do and what we need them to do. When it comes to climate change there is a growing gap between the two and inaction allows the gap to grow, threatening our ability to respond.
In fostering a thriving and equitable U.S. society for the 21st century, climate adaptation and mitigation must be central to any decision made about infrastructure today. There are children alive today that will be living at the turn of the next century (2100) with better or worse conditions based on the infrastructure decisions that we make today.
Mikhail Chester is the director of the Metis Center for Infrastructure and Sustainable Engineering, and an associate professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering at Arizona State University.
Constantine Samaras is the director of the Center for Engineering and Resilience for Climate Adaptation at Carnegie Mellon University, an adjunct senior researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.