If Trump wants to save U.S. infrastructure, he needs to care about climate change

In Science
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President Trump wants to make America’s roads, bridges and tunnels great again. But the Trump administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan could be wasted if it ignores the predicted affects of climate change.

Extreme heat could cause pipes to crack, or melt asphalt. Airports below sea level could be flooded. Communities could relocate because of drought or heat, putting pressure on transportation systems and reducing the relevancy of others. Extreme weather could cause flooding of inland roads, and storm surges could flood highways on the coasts.

“Infrastructure has largely been designed for historical weather and climate conditions,” Mikhail Chester, assistant professor of civil, environmental, and sustainable engineering at Arizona State University, explains.

So far the models have served us well. But the potential impacts of climate change could make those systems less reliable down the road.

Climate scientists predict more bouts of extreme weather and larger swings in temperature, “which upends how we have to think about designing,” Chester added.

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The most recent National Climate Assessment, a federally funded study published in 2014, details how global warming is likely to affect the United States’ infrastructure across the country: Many roads, bridges and tunnels will be pushed to the breaking point.

In some cases, the infrastructure failures predicted by climate models have already happened. For example, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority estimates that Hurricane Sandy, which flooded the New York City subway system, caused $4.75 billion in infrastructure damage.

There’s some debate over whether the hurricane itself was caused by climate change — but scientists agree that we can expect to see weather events like Sandy more frequently as a result of global warming. That makes it harder to file away the damage done by Sandy as a singular occurrence.

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Trump has not offered specifics on his infrastructure plans, but he has made it clear that he will not continue President Obama’s efforts to combat and mitigate the effects of climate change. The president recently rescinded a number of Obama’s actions on climate change, including the 2013 Climate Action Plan — which featured an effort to prepare infrastructure for global warming.

But disregarding climate change would make it harder for engineers to do their jobs.

As U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lead for Climate Preparedness and Resilience Kate White puts it, “we design this infrastructure… to operate as reliably as possible under the foreseeable future conditions.”

Without taking the challenges posed by climate change into account, she says, “we could be at risk for failure to perform the services.”

Michael Meyer, senior adviser with engineering and design firm WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff, added that as we upgrade existing infrastructure and plan new bridges, roads and tunnels, “we need to be very aware of what the future climatic conditions will be, and incorporate them into the design.”

“It really is all about resiliency,” he says, adding that engineers need to be prepared both for short-term and long-term impacts of climate change — like rising sea levels, which should inform the way a bridge should be designed to last a century.

Meyer says that over the past few years, a lot of research has been done on how to incorporate climate change preparedness into infrastructure engineering.

“I think it’s incumbent upon us to take things like the National Climate Assessment into consideration,” he says. He hopes the current administration would agree.

It’s Climate Change Week at CNN MoneyStream. For more stories about how global warming is impacting business, follow the Climate Change stream in the CNN MoneyStream app.

CNNMoney (New York) First published April 21, 2017: 6:45 AM ET



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