The USA had 11 separate weather and climate events that amassed losses of $110 billion in damage in 2012, according to the National Climatic Data Centre. These include Hurricane Sandy and a drought disaster that reached more than 2,600 of the nation’s counties. The vulnerability of US infrastructure has become increasingly visible to policymakers, publics and engineers. The frequency of extreme weather is up over the past few years. Leading climate models suggest that weather-sensitive parts of the infrastructure will be seeing many more extreme episodes, along with shifts in weather patterns. The American economy is dependent on reliable infrastructure for long-term economic growth, increasing GDP, employment, household income, and exports.
Risen global sea levels require increased energy use in the form of additional pumping for drainage and water supply. Additionally, America has more than 280 electric power plants, oil and gas refineries, and other energy facilities located on low-lying lands vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding. As the world’s largest economy, the United States also has the responsibility to provide global leadership in reducing greenhouse gases through the adoption of renewable sources of generation.
Climate change has begun to impose huge costs on local communities across America, affecting agriculture, tourism, insurance rates, safety, and homeowners’ investments. It has already started to impact hydrological cycles, producing frequent droughts, flooding, and severe storms. On a global scale, climate change will disproportionately impact developing countries, including vulnerable coastal regions in the Global South, contributing to competition for resources in already volatile regions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the United States must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 60 – 80% by 2050 to avert the worst impacts of climate change.
The American Society of Civil Engineers released a comprehensive assessment report of the nation’s major infrastructure every four years. The grades are based on eight specific criteria: capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience, and innovation. The grades have been falling since 1998, due to delayed maintenance and underinvestment across most categories. The 2013 Report Card indicates that if investments are made and projects moved forward, the current condition of the nation’s infrastructure can improve. There is a significant backlog of overdue maintenance across the country’s infrastructure systems, an increasing need for modernization, and an immense opportunity to create reliable, long-term funding sources to avoid wiping out our recent gains. Without significant investment, poor water, electricity and transport infrastructure could cost the US economy $1.3 trillion by 2020.
In both the public and private sector, there is a crisis of leadership on how to tackle the pressing issues of America’s infrastructure and as a result, public confidence is quite low. Funding to develop transformative infrastructure is also hard to come by, with existing funds insolvent or declining. Additionally, deadlines for major projects are often not met, adding years to construction schedules and billions of dollars to construction costs. All of this further erodes public confidence the nation’s ability to finance and build the infrastructure that it urgently needs.
America needs to take a fresh look at its infrastructure and use it as an instrument to improve its economic standpoint globally as well as build a stronger community. Transformative infrastructure will have to arise from existing roads, waterways, bridges and buildings. In seeking to address issues of existing infrastructure, engineers can find opportunities to fix problems and step towards a brighter future. Solutions to creating transformative infrastructure begin with revisiting and revamping key processes.
1. Public Investment
America needs to modernize its infrastructure from better roads and bridges, smarter electrical grids, upgraded water, sanitation, and mass transit systems, clean energy and more energy-efficient buildings, and globally competitive broadband. Recently, the government outlined plans to revamp the nation’s ailing highways, bridges and other public projects as well as return the focus back to the economy and jobs. Such public investments provide a ready solution to protect low-lying urban areas, water and wastewater systems that are resilient to rising seas and increased rainfall intensity; build transportation systems that can move more efficiently; and energy systems that can function in extreme heat, producing energy with limited carbon emissions.
2. Green Infrastructure
Green infrastructure is a conceptual framework for understanding the valuable services nature provides the human environment. By promoting renewable energy sources, and crafting the most efficient water and transportation systems, we can create a more sustainable world. Interconnected networks of park systems and wildlife corridors preserve ecological function, manage water, provide wildlife habitat, and create a balance between built and natural environments. On an urban level, parks and urban forestry are central to reducing energy usage costs and creating clean, temperate air. Also, green roofs, walls, and other techniques within or on buildings help reduce energy consumption and dramatically decrease storm water runoff. Energy efficiency will offer the most immediate large-scale payback from investments within the next decade. The American government will need to provide tools and incentives for homeowners, businesses and state and local governments to make this possible. Crucial to combating climate change, creating healthy built environments, and improving quality of life, green infrastructure is a crucial, cost-effective tool.
The current education system in America needs to shift its focus to multiple, complex interactions between engineered systems and the Earth’s climate system. With climate change becoming a major concern globally, there is a need for future engineers to understand the dynamics of this challenge and transform the nation’s infrastructure. It must integrate technical and normative learning, knowledge, and skills, in formal and informal educational venues. While most engineers accept that climate change will affect their practice in the future, very few are currently factoring it into their infrastructure decisions. By providing cutting-edge scientific research, education has already made contributes to climate adaptation efforts by identifying the most pressing climate impacts. Engineers will be central to the process of adaptation, both ensuring that current infrastructure assets are protected from the long term and acute effects of climate change, as well as developing new infrastructure systems fit for changing climate conditions.