How Cities Can Prepare to Withstand Global Warming

Taxis sit in a flooded lot after Hurricane Sandy in Hoboken, New Jersey. Cities may need to take climate change into account when planning future repairs and building new infrastructure. Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images

Signs of climate change are all around us. Ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising and extreme heat and other related events are happening more frequently. A rising chorus of experts say that getting ready for climate change catastrophes should include updating the infrastructure that helps keep cities and towns running across the globe. And we should probably be doing it right now. 

“We're at a place where we can't design based on the past anymore,” says Constantine Samaras, who teaches civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. He points out that engineers and policymakers should focus on refurbishing infrastructure – buildings, highways, airports, dams, waste facilities and power grids — so that it's able to withstand new demands posed by the shifting climate. That means anticipating both what people will need as well as new environmental stresses that climate change may heap on the existing system.

For instance, raising the heights of bridges and roads in cities near waterways might be necessary, as well as deepening levees to combat floodwaters. It could also mean treating roadway asphalt that tends to crumble and crack as the surface temperature heats up.

Some U.S. cities are already taking steps. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, New York City fortified buildings and power facilities, raised the coastal edges surrounding the city to guard against rising sea levels and tweaked zoning ordinances to require newly constructed homes and buildings to be more flood-resistant. Samaras also cites the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities program, designed to help urban locales around the globe prepare for the future, as an example of the kind of planning and development that should already be in the works.

The U.S. earned a D+ on the 2013 infrastructure report card issued by the American Society for Civil Engineers.

“All of these different parts of the infrastructure need to be designed to withstand extreme weather over the entire lifespan,” Samaras says.  U.S. infrastructure is already in desperate need of an update, even without accounting for the climate change threat. The country earned a D+ on the 2013 infrastructure report card issued by the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE). The ASCE cited a "significant backlog of overdue maintenance across our infrastructure systems" and "a pressing need for modernization."

The trouble is all those repairs are expensive. Federal lawmakers so far have been unable to come up with a plan to fund the projects over the long term. But Samaras says climate-minded upgrades will eventually help cities, states and Uncle Sam save some dough. Still, the additional upfront spending that's required is a tough sell in an era where many governments are having a hard time coming up with the cash to keep their infrastructure in working order.

Also, no one knows exactly how, when and where weather changes are going to happen. The ASCE recently recommended that engineers and scientists work together to consider how climate patterns may change and what impact those changes will have. 

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