The Climate Apocalypse Reports
Just-ended November 2018 saw the issuance of a spate of major reports on Climate Change, all of them with very bad news. Bad news unless you take the same point of view as that expressed by the US President, that you know better and climate change is not worth believing. For the non-conspiracy theorists out there, this is a lot of information, and a lot to on which to chew. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its 15th annual assessment at the end of October, the US Government put out its 4th Annual Climate Assessment on November 23 (the day after Thanksgiving, when the US administration hoped fewer people would read it…), and the World Meteorological Organization released its annual review of global temperature data on November 29. And on November 28, to somewhat lesser fanfare, The Lancet, a UK medical journal, issued a major report on the expected health impacts of climate change. Climate Apocalypse is a good term for summarizing the various future projected in these reports.
This post will look at some infrastructure-related adaptations we can also expect, in the wake of the climate changes being both experienced and projected. The bottom line for infrastructure from all this? More spending.
Two areas where we can expect a major uptick in infrastructure investment are flood management, and energy sector resiliency.
Flooding risk is already a visible consequence of climate change, especially from increased high-precipitation events, as previously covered in Infrastructure Ideas. Breathless news coverage of hurricanes and typhoons has increasingly focused on this effect, as opposed to wind damage. What is “new”, or at least getting more emphasis, in these recent reports, is that flood-related damage and related infrastructure implications are much more widespread than commonly thought. The big message: it’s not just the coasts.
Another new report, by researchers at the University of Maryland and Texas A&M, “The Growing Threat of Urban Flooding,” was released in the last week of November. Well summarized in a piece by Henry Grabar at Slate, this report synthesizes the surprisingly limited body of knowledge on urban flooding. The report points out that the US has been seeing a wave of urban flooding problems, and by no means all related to highly publicized hurricanes and tropical storms. It notes that the US has experienced nearly 150 urban flooding events a year, or almost one every two days, and that 2 in 3 flood insurance claims come not from storm surges but rather from freshwater. Increased flood damage is coming from a combination of factors which is present, well, everywhere – not just in the US. The growth of cities has eliminated many natural drainage areas, while channeling storm run-off in new – and essentially unplanned – ways. Climate change has increased the frequency and severity of extreme rainfall events, concentrated in places well away from typical tropical storm landfall areas. And water and sewer infrastructure is in many places either old, undermaintained or non-existent.
The costs for repairing infrastructure damaged by these flooding events, or for repairing infrastructure to contain envisaged future events, or for building additional infrastructure only now seen as necessary in light of these new flooding patterns, are high. Cities across the country are having to confront higher infrastructure spending costs – with dwindling support from the Federal Government (see previous Infrastructure Ideas post on US infrastructure spending patterns). This need for additional, climate-change related investment in water and sewer infrastructure, is going to become increasingly visible in the coming years. And it’s far from being just an American problem: the issue is beginning to be covered first in the US, but the same underlying factors apply across all countries. Water and sewer investment is going to become more important everywhere.
Still in late November, another Wood Mackenzie piece reviewing the USG climate report covered parallel climate change impacts on inland power utilities (Emma Foehringer Merchant, November 26). The piece highlighted the same message – it’s not just the coasts. It noted that inland energy infrastructure “in every region” will be hit with extreme precipitation, while in some areas the kind of conditions that have led to the high-visibility drought and wildfires in California will become more and more present. Utilities will have to deal with increased repair and maintenance costs related to flood and fire, while also facing a combination of lower power supply (from lower weather-related transmission efficiencies and thermal generation) and higher demand for cooling. Hydropower supplies are also being affected in many places: the USG Climate Report observes that California’s hydropower generation dropped 59% in 2015 during the unprecedented multi-year drought in the state. Not to minimize the issues facing coastal utilities: the report notes that restoring Puerto Rico’s grid is expected to have a $17 billion price tag, while Consolidated Edison and PSE&G spent $2 billion in grid-hardening after Hurricane Sandy.
Warnings help. This is an Apocalypse where planning makes a big difference. Infrastructure costs are always higher when the spending is unplanned and difficult to manage. And costs of preventative action are generally a fraction of later repair costs. Several cities and utilities are planning ahead, and investing in resilience. Those investments are unlikely to eliminate future flooding and other climate change-related problems, but they could make them substantially less expensive.
For infrastructure planners, infrastructure companies, and infrastructure funders, the Apocalypse message is simple. The future will be expensive. We can all expect to see the growing importance of climate adaptation in future infrastructure investment.