Beth Ward

The White House recently released the Third National Climate Assessment stating three key facts: Climate change is happening; our burning of fossil fuels is a major cause; and we are already feeling the impacts.

Wait. Haven’t we heard this before?

Yes, we have. Climate scientists have been saying this for years. Most recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fifth Assessment Report, which concluded that climate change is happening; scientists are 95% certain that humans are causing it; and dramatic steps will be needed to reduce its impact.

I don’t bring this up to down play the importance of the National Climate Assessment. The 800+ page document is the result of four years of work by hundreds of the nation’s top climate scientists and technical experts.  And while the IPCC assessment provides a global perspective, the National Climate Assessment offers a comprehensive, authoritative, detailed look at how climate change is impacting the U.S. from heat waves to increased precipitation to more extreme weather events to rising temperatures, which extend growing seasons but also increase water and energy demand.

It’s especially interesting that for the first time there is a chapter devoted solely to Urban Systems, Infrastructure, and Vulnerability. Many of the infrastructure systems in cities and metropolitan areas are highly interdependent, making the people that live there (about 80% of the U.S. population) more vulnerable to disruptions, according to the assessment.

Much of the nation’s infrastructure is also at the end of its useful life and in need of repair and replacement. Impacts from climate change, such as rising sea levels, storm surges, heat waves, and other extreme weather events will only worsen this situation.

“In most cases, the questions are not which infrastructures are more vulnerable than the other but where are the points where lots of infrastructures are so connected that impacts on any one would affect a lot of others,” Tom Wilbanks, a senior scientist at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory told ClimateWire in March.

Wilbanks co-authored the DOE report “Climate Change and Infrastructure, Urban Systems, and Vulnerabilities,” which was part of the body of technical research used in the development of the National Climate Assessment. The DOE report found that:

  • Extreme weather events associated with climate change will increase disruptions of infrastructure services in some locations.
  • A series of less extreme weather events associated with climate change, occurring in rapid succession, or even severe weather events combined with other disruptive events may have similar effects.
  • Disruptions of services in one infrastructure will almost always result in disruptions in one or more of the other infrastructures, especially in urban systems, triggering serious cross-sector cascading infrastructure system failures in some locations, at least for short periods of time.
  • These risks are greater for infrastructure that are:
      • Located in areas exposed to extreme weather events
      • Located at or near particularly climate-sensitive environmental features, such as coastlines, rivers, storm tracks, and vegetation in arid areas
      • Already stressed by age and/or by demand levels that exceed what they were designed to deliver

But as the ClimateWire article notes “overhauling the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure is a tough sell even when it’s framed around problems that aren’t related to climate change. That’s because it’s expensive, really expensive.”

This is where cities face the critical decision: invest in resilient infrastructure up front, or face potentially billions of dollars in damage after increasingly extreme weather events. Superstorm Sandy is held as the canary in the coal mine. Extreme weather and cascading infrastructure impacts caused more than 100 deaths, resulted in about $65 billion in property damage, and left 8.5 million customers without electricity. Yet even smaller outages can have a ripple effect, knocking out essential services such as water treatment and communication, and racking up large economic losses from closed businesses.

In Congressional testimony earlier this year, DHS Office of Infrastructure Protection Assistant Secretary Caitlin Durkovich and Assistant Secretary for Policy David Heyman said the aging and deteriorating condition of infrastructure systems “both weaken our resilience and negatively affect our nation’s security and prosperity.”

“These challenges present significant obstacles to performing DHS’s missions, particularly during times of disaster. The projected impacts of climate change, including sea level rise and increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events, can cause damage or disruptions that result in cascading effects across our communities, with immeasurable costs in lives lost and billions of dollars in property damage,” Durkovich and Heyman said in their written testimony.

Many of the nation’s cities are already taking action to adapt to climate change and the National Climate Assessment credits them with being “early responders to climate change challenges and opportunities.” Cities are integrating adaptation into existing efforts to leverage funding and achieve results without developing separate climate change policies, according to the report.

The National Climate Assessment adds to the growing body of evidence on climate change and specifically illustrates how our nation will be affected. Its release will hopefully spur action across the country to take steps not only to mitigate climate change, but also adapt to it; that includes repairing our crumbling infrastructure while also recognizing the conditions that infrastructure will need to withstand in the coming decades.