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Climate change imperils critical infrastructure

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A new report on the impacts of climate change on our nation’s physical infrastructure vividly demonstrates the shocking vulnerability of our critical infrastructure in a warming world. The greatest risks are to infrastructure that binds communities together and keeps us safe and healthy, like roads, bridges, hospitals and water treatment systems. While the report doesn’t address environmental justice, it clearly shows that the increasing burdens from a changing climate will fall on overburdened low-income communities and Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities.

Reliable infrastructure is essential to the economic prosperity, sustainability and security of communities across the United States. Congress just passed legislation that finally addresses the deteriorating state of the country’s infrastructure. As it heads to President Biden to be signed into law, the administration needs to ensure that measures to manage and mitigate the impacts of climate change on our infrastructure are upfront and central. 

We have ample scientific evidence that a changing climate increases both the severity and the frequency of storms, and recent experience has dramatically demonstrated the economic and human cost of flood-damaged infrastructure. We have watched as hurricanes have swamped hospitals, crippled electrical substations, overwhelmed wastewater treatment systems, as well as shut off power and water to tens of millions of people.

The 3rd National Risk Assessment: Infrastructure on the Brink,” prepared by The First Street Foundation, an organization devoted to assessing climate risk, documents the alarming vulnerability of physical infrastructure to climate driven flooding. The report uses newly available flood risk information and a national database of more than 20,000 flood adaptation measures, such as levees, dams and open spaces, to calculate risks to various types of facilities by neighborhood, zip code, city and county.

It is the most thorough and far-reaching publicly available report of its kind, and finds vulnerabilities to all types of physical infrastructure: residential and commercial properties; roads; social infrastructure, like schools, churches and government buildings; as well as infrastructure critical to community protection — hospitals, water systems, along with hazardous and solid waste disposal sites.

U.S. infrastructure is, at best, in mediocre condition, deteriorating and showing signs of increasing vulnerability. For example, more than 21,000 bridges are susceptible to overtopping or having their foundations undermined during extreme storm events. In addition, more than 12 million residential properties, 900,000 commercial properties and 71,000 social infrastructure properties are at risk from flooding. 

But the highest risks are to the glue that connects our nation and keeps its people safe and healthy, its roads and airports, fire and police stations, hospitals, as well as drinking water and wastewater treatment systems. Roughly one-quarter of that critical infrastructure, 36,000 facilities, and nearly 2 million miles of road are at risk of becoming inoperable today. That doesn’t even account for the burdens on disadvantaged communities without any drinking water delivery or wastewater treatment infrastructure at all.

By way of illustration, there are 770 hospitals, public utilities and water treatment plants in Harris County, Texas that encompasses Houston, at risk of flooding above their operational threshold this year. In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, 1,640 schools, churches and museums at risk of being inoperable. In Illionois’ Cook County, which includes Chicago, nearly one-quarter of a million residential properties are subject to flooding and 99 percent of the roads in New Orleans are at risk of being undrivable due to their estimated flood risk.

The report also examines how the risks are distributed geographically. It reports “persistent patterns of vulnerability to physical risk from flooding” in coastal flood plains along the Gulf and Southeastern coasts of the U.S., and in less well-known flood zones such as in the Appalachian mountain regions of West Virginia and Kentucky, and high risks to some population centers.

The report also shows how heavily infrastructure vulnerabilities weigh on our nation’s low-income and BIPOC communities. A large share of the major population centers it highlights as facing serious risk are places where incomes are low or there are heavy concentrations of people of color. Ground zero for risk is New Orleans, a majority-minority city where virtually the entire infrastructure system is in grave peril. Other high-risk areas include some of the country’s largest — and most diverse — cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami and Tampa.

The report also assesses how climate-based flooding risks change over time and predicts that the yearly costs of climate impact to residential properties will increase by more than 60 percent over the next 30 years. This type of dynamic analysis is rare but essential to understanding the true dimensions of climate risk and planning for and assisting local communities in building resilience. Climate resilience must be a continuing focus in planning and implementing infrastructure projects.

But measuring the true costs of flood risk means looking beyond the price tag to repair physical damage. The impacts of flooding also include the loss of security and social cohesion when communities suffer collective injuries like road and school closures, lost utility services, emergency response capacity or hospital services.

Protecting our infrastructure and increasing its resilience to climate change is vital to protecting people’s health, their homes and their livelihoods, as well as their quality of life. 

David F. Coursen is a former EPA attorney and a member of the Environmental Protection Network, a nonprofit organization of EPA alumni working to protect the agency’s progress toward clean air, water, land and climate protection.

Tags Climate change Climate change mitigation climate resilience Climate risk David Coursen extreme weather flooding hurricanes Infrastructure Joe Biden

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