Climate Change is Challenging Historic Assumptions for Urban Resilience
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Creating climate resiliency is not the same as disaster or emergency planning.
The chronic impacts of climate change will dwarf the impact of single hazard events.
These two statements represent the underlying challenge for cities and communities to achieve climate resilience. While single events such as hurricanes and tornados are serious events that can and do inflict physical and social damage in areas where they appear, they do not represent the sole impact of climate change. Rather, climate change presents cities with an arguably even greater risk to health, safety, and financial security – chronic damages. The costs required to address chronic damages resulting from increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will alter the financial security of many cities regardless of size or prosperity.
One-time natural disasters cause significant damages when they overwhelm the capacity of local flood control systems or exceed the guidelines set forth in building codes. These events are notable for the significant damage they can cause in a single episode. The numbers that accompany these events such as the $27 billion in insured losses associated with Hurricane Andrew or the $12 billion in damage caused by the Midwest floods earlier this year, grab headlines and public attention. Even relatively small storms such as the recent tropical storm Berry result in damages that can reach the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The attention-grabbing headlines of these events are warranted. However, these damages, while significant, are isolated when compared to the chronic effects that are being introduced by climate change on a national level. Simply put, climate change alters the foundation of assumptions that underlie every building code that guides the development of our communities.
The first building codes were put in place with a focus on protecting individuals from fire. These public safety codes were slowly expanded to protect individuals from collapsing buildings during events such as earthquakes or hurricanes. As buildings became more sophisticated with electronics and environmental controls, further guidelines were created to ensure buildings were healthy and offered safe working environments. However, the weak link in these guidelines is that they are based on what has happened in the past. Our built environment is based on the assumption that the environment in which a city exists will not change from historical patterns.
Climate change is altering this assumption and shaking the foundation on which our built environment stands.
What does this mean?
The reports continue to be published on the potential impact of climate change on infrastructure. The EPA reports that over $200 billion is required to adapt roads for future conditions. The Center for Climate Integrity reports that a minimum of $400 billion is required to protect coastal areas. However, these reports are only a small fraction of what could occur. Some examples:
Even small changes in temperature can significantly impact the amount of energy a building requires for heating or cooling. Buildings are designed for specific climate zones and a relatively small change in temperature can change the requirements for a building to respond to a climate that is similar to Denver to one that feels like Albuquerque. Buildings are not designed for such changes and significant costs will be incurred to alter heating and cooling systems to ensure the continued functioning of the building. A failure to address these changes will result in scenes of young children in elementary schools with insufficient air conditioning trying to learn with a heat index exceeding 100 degrees in late August.
Hurricanes damage a building as it comes ashore with heavy rains and wind. Climate change introduces rainfalls on a regular basis with greater intensity accompanied by increased wind strength than what is considered normal. Every time one of these regular storms breaks over a community, buildings will experience increased leaks from failures in roofs or window seals. And these are not one-time costs. These could be events that occur on a daily basis during a local rainy season.
Pictures of floods near rivers such as the Mississippi River appear all too regularly in the Midwest. However, individuals in other regions are likely to start experiencing a different kind of flooding – urban flooding. Once again, we encounter infrastructure, in this case storm sewers, that are designed for what has occurred in the past. Future projections of higher intensity rainfalls will overwhelm these systems and result in localized flooding that ultimately leads to flooded buildings, ruined vehicles, and scenes of individuals looking for higher ground for safety.
Asphalt is designed to handle a narrow range of temperatures. This may sound odd considering there are asphalt roads in every climate zone of the United Sates. However, each of these roads is designed for a specific climate zone. When temperatures exceed what is considered normal for that zone, roads get soft and fail under the stress of typical traffic. What is newsworthy today of a road buckling in the heat will become the norm under predicted temperature changes.
When a bridge fails it leads to injury and deaths. It is that simple. And projections of increased rainfall intensity will lead to situations where a bridge is not built to resist the amount of water streaming down a riverbed. In these situations, especially among the more than 100,000 bridges already in need of repair, we will see failures.
Much has been written about the potential impacts of sea level rise on coastal cities to the point that it does not need to be reiterated here. However, what does need to be highlighted are impacts such as permanent inundation, the destruction of coastal roads, and the need to decide which communities will be saved. We cannot afford to protect every mile of coastline and every small beach community from coastal climate effects. Who is going to make these decisions about which communities are sacrificed?
What We Can Do
Modern cities and communities were not designed and built for the future; they are built on an assumption that we will continue to have a climate that resembles the past. And now that it is increasingly apparent that this assumption is incorrect, can anything be done?
Without getting into the complicated world of international politics and agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, here is a focus on things that can be done on a local basis.
Understanding the Issues
Preparing for climate change is a social, economic, and technical challenge. Understanding the potential impacts of climate change at an initial planning level is something that can be done quickly and affordably. Public officials need to aggressively pursue gaining this insight.
A Life-Safety Perspective
We need to start talking about life safety and reducing the usage of infrastructure as the term of choice. Infrastructure is a key component of public health and safety. It is imperative for public officials at all levels to start addressing the potential impact of climate change as a challenge to the health and safety of their constituents. And it is equally important for local citizens to start demanding that this perspective be the one that is used to minimize the ability of officials to discount this challenge as simply a public works problem.
Ethical Design and Building
Perhaps the largest change that needs to be implemented to realistically address adaptation is a change in building codes and regulations. Currently, if a designer, builder, or planner follows local codes, then it is legally following the rules. However, as laid out previously, these are the same codes that rely on historic climate conditions. Therefore, by relying on guidelines that look to the past and not the future, we are reinforcing the development of communities that are inadequately prepared for climate change. This is ethically wrong. Protecting public safety in the built environment requires a focus on the future.
A final step that is critical for preparing for the future is to reexamine budgeting procedures. Critical roads, bridges, and buildings need to be adapted for future conditions. Budgets need to be altered to proactively protect critical life services.
Climate change impacts can be a confusing and complicated topic. What are vulnerabilities, when should we be concerned, how much is it going to cost? While all of these are critical questions, the protection of communities can start with one question:
Is our community protecting public health and safety by preparing for a future environment?
Preparing a community for climate resilience requires an understanding of future conditions, a strategy for adaptation, and a commitment to designing and building a community that values public health and safety.
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