By George Deodatis
Although not officially announced yet, it is almost certain that the eagerly anticipated stimulus plan of Obama’s new administration will include hundreds of billions of dollars in a wide range of civil infrastructure works, as commented by Anne Polansky’s “Note to Obama economic team: New infrastructure must withstand climate disruption” on December 1, 2008. A significant percentage of these projects will be transportation-related (e.g. roads, bridges, mass-transit systems, etc.). Some projects will focus on rehabilitation of existing (and badly deteriorated) parts of the transportation infrastructure, while others will involve the design and construction of new (and badly needed) components.
Major transportation systems are expected to have long lives. For example, parts of the New York City subway system are more than one hundred years old and they will be around for much longer. Some of the city’s monumental bridges are even older. In general, a life expectancy of around a century or so is pretty standard for certain parts of the transportation infrastructure.
So when the funds start flowing from Washington to state and other local agencies for such projects, it should not be forgotten that several of these works are expected to be around and serve the public for a long time. And from what appears to be an essentially universal consensus among climate scientists, the climate will not be the same in the future as it is today. This will mean elevated temperatures, sea level rise, changes in intensity and frequency of storms, etc. It is true that quantification of these changes is far from settled, as mentioned in the recently released USGS study “Abrupt Climate Change, Final Report, Synthesis and Assessment Product 3.4” of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. Modifications in various predictions will be provided essentially continuously in the future. It is also true that the uncertainty in these predictions increases with their time horizon. That said, our current inability to quantify these changes with appropriate confidence should not translate into simply disregarding them.
Traditionally, the design of the transportation infrastructure was carried out without any consideration to climate change and its various effects. This is the time to start accounting for it, as also suggested by Anne Polansky. And since reliable estimates of what will happen a hundred years from now are not available, a good beginning is to start asking questions at a conceptual level. For example, a project planner may ask, is two feet of sea level rise (SLR) going to put my infrastructure at risk? What about three feet (and you should account for storm surges on top of this SLR)? What would be the cost of protecting infrastructure against the effects of climate change in the future (e.g. by building sea walls, sealing underground infrastructure, raising roads and other infrastructure higher if possible, etc.)? Ultimately, does it make better sense to start thinking about adaptable solutions now? Discussing such questions is never a waste of time. On the contrary, it would be a great waste if no such questions are raised and debated.