A moving target: Hardening our infrastructure against climate change

September 5, 2021

As fires continue to rage in the American West, as swaths of Louisiana including New Orleans remain without electricity as a result of Hurricane Ida, and as flood damage resulting from the remnants of that hurricane continue to dog New York City and the Northeast, we are already hearing calls for “hardening” our infrastructure. Hardening means making our infrastructure more resilient in the face of disaster, both natural and man-made. That supposedly means making our electrical grid more resistant to wind, improving drainage and sewer systems to prevent flooding, and upgrading roads and bridges to prevent them from washing away.

While hardening infrastructure seems like a good idea, there are two major obstacles. One is obvious: It is much easier to harden infrastructure when building it from scratch. Upgrading any piece of existing infrastructure means working within the limitations of that infrastructure and replacing and adding parts in ways that are less expensive but also less ideal than rebuilding. While some of Louisiana’s electrical grid might be rebuilt from scratch, very little electrical infrastructure elsewhere will be rebuilt since upgrading will be far less expensive. The same holds true for water and transportation infrastructure.

The second obstacle may not be so obvious: Climate, the primary reason for hardening, is a moving target. The planet has not simply reached a new stable state. Rather, climate change itself is changing, that is, it is getting worse over time. First, the rate of human-caused emissions of climate destabilizing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, continues to rise. We are adding more carbon dioxide every day at ever higher rates. Second, that trend has resulted in continuously rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Third, there is a substantial lag between the time climate warming gases are released into the atmosphere and the effects are seen on the planet’s surface. Even if humans halted all greenhouse gas emissions today, climate warming would continue for between 25 and 50 years.

But, of course, we humans are not even contemplating such a halt until mid-century—a halt that we are characterizing as net zero emissions. And, that target may end up being elusive as interests dependent on fossil fuels try to push that date further into the future.

So, for those whose job it is to harden the infrastructure the question arises: How much do we harden it? We cannot know in advance exactly how much hardening will be sufficient to prevent the extraordinary damage we’re already seeing from happening in the future.

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Of course, the more we harden our infrastructure, the more expensive per foot or mile the hardening becomes. No matter how much we decide to harden our systems, the cost will be enormous. To lessen the financial burden, we may spread out our efforts over a larger number of years. That means delaying the hardening while much of our infrastructure remains vulnerable.

If we decide instead to hurry that retrofit along by front-loading our efforts, it will mean not only allocating vast sums of money that cannot be spent elsewhere, but also dramatically expanding the people and equipment available to do the work. Finding and training the extra people needed and manufacturing the equipment and supplies required for accelerated hardening will take time and likely create bottlenecks and delays that frustrate our timetables.

There is also the problem that climate change is not a linear process. Climate-induced wind, water and heat-related challenges may not simply grow gradually and predictably, but rather increase at a more rapid rate than they are doing today.

Hardening our infrastructure against climate change will be fantastically expensive if we mean to do it in an effective way. But hardening it against such an uncertain and constantly changing future may result in huge expenditures that are nevertheless of little or no avail against the ever increasing power of climate change to inflict damage on our civilization.

Maybe, just maybe, we should consider taking some or most of that money and effort and focusing on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Hmmm…now, why didn’t somebody think of that before now?

Photo: A man helps his uncle clear debris form his home, which burned down during Hurricane Sandy. The fire started when the electrical panel got flooded. Photo by Liz Roll/FEMA (2013) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bayville,_N.J.,_Jan._30,_2013_–_A_man_helps_his_uncle_clear_debris_form_his_home,_which_burned_down_during_Hurricane_Sandy._The_fire_started_when_the_electrical_panel_got_flooded._-_DPLA_-_b8352778c8ca8cf682552f2807a198ae.jpg

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: climate change