We need improved climate-resilient infrastructure
For most Americans, climate change has long been a distant consideration — the theories of scientists and partisan politicians. Yet just as the bombing of Pearl Harbor shattered the fiction of America’s immunity to war, so too has the summer of 2020 brought home the reality that climate change is endangering lives, property, and infrastructure not just abroad, but right here at home.
Ultimately, our ability to supply essential services to our citizens is becoming so endangered, that the changing climate itself is presenting dire threats to our national security. In the face of rising threats, building resilience into our infrastructure and better encouraging private capital flows in support of government efforts has become a global priority.
The daily headlines remind us that the frequency, scale, and severity of hurricanes, floods, wildfires, droughts, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events are accelerating at an unprecedented pace. The rising emissions fomenting these accelerating catastrophes point to the need for communities to mobilize before disasters strike. Climate resilience — the ability to prepare for, recover from, and adapt to a changing climate — is now on an urgency par with mitigation.
Central to preparedness is the need for sustainable and climate-resilient infrastructure that elevates the standard of care, protects people and property, lessens damages, and makes it faster, easier, and less expensive to build back better. Since infrastructure is the backbone of the global economy with a pent- up demand of $3.7 trillion per year for the foreseeable future, getting our infrastructure right will not only protect populations, but also create jobs — directly in its creation of the asset as well as through the essential services it makes possible.
Governments at the local, state and national levels are clearly struggling for a solution. Fortunately, an unlikely group of leaders is answering the call. For engineers, action is the heart and soul of the profession. Engineers are the ones who plan, design, build, maintain, and operate the structures in which we live, transport, communicate, and thrive. Their work touches our daily lives.
While no single organization, industry, or government can solve the climate resilience challenge alone, engineers can play a significant role in meeting the rising threats presented by a changing climate. With foresight based on science, the engineering community can help anticipate future threats, develop a culture of preparedness, and open new investments in sustainable, climate-resilient infrastructure that is safe, reliable, and built to last.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has announced its intention to unveil a world infrastructure standard that defines sustainable infrastructure that is climate resilient. The standard is applicable across all phases of the lifecycle and all infrastructure sectors. It will provide coherent and consistent objectives that can be included in procurement documents by owners, regulators, stakeholders and policymakers. To provide consistency, the standard is aligned with ISI Envision, RELi and similar rating systems.
This simple solution could be a game changer.
By building resiliency into the infrastructure we all rely upon, it will become more survivable in the face of rising catastrophes. By encouraging innovation, the standard can save as much as 50 percent of the costs over the life cycle of the projects. By providing beneficial investment opportunities, large private institutional investors will be attracted. And by offering a better risk/return ratio, insurance companies will be more willing to increase their direct investments in infrastructure.
Congress should join local and state governments to support this grand engineering initiative and work with financial markets, insurance and reinsurance companies, and other stakeholders to press for global adoption. Once embedded in laws and regulations, this standard will become the cornerstone of the climate resilience movement and the badge of climate leadership.
In this epic struggle, it is invigorating to see the enlightened engineering profession plan for climate-resilient communities for the next 50 years, and get underway immediately, at scale, designing and building the future now. If Congress wants to address the plight of Californians, Louisianans, Texans, Floridians, and all Americans, it should put its foot on the accelerator for the climate-resilient movement and get behind this paradigm shifting standard.
Brian Finlay is president and CEO of the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank focused on international security. Jan Hartke, recognized as one of the founders of the sustainable development movement, served for 12 years as the global director of clean energy for the Clinton Climate Initiative and is founder and chairman of the Alliance for a Climate Resilient Earth (ACRE).
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