An Engineer’s Guide to Building Climate Change-Resilient Infrastructure
The effects of climate change can be observed all around us; we experience it in the form of extreme storms, record-breaking temperatures, and other climate abnormalities. Another area where the impact of climate change is acutely felt is in the degradation of our infrastructure. Rising tides and heavy storms have already exerted a toll on roads, bridges, buildings, and industrial facilities. Thankfully, there are innovations in climate-resilient infrastructure that provide safeguards against this kind of degradation.
Many cities and communities lack climate-resilient infrastructure, yet there is still time and opportunity for engineers and engineering students to make an important and lasting difference.
The Impacts of Climate Change on Infrastructure
To understand the need for climate change resilience, it’s first necessary to understand the different ways in which climate change impacts communities and infrastructure.
According to the National Climate Assessment, “Climate change and its impacts threaten the well-being of urban residents in all U.S. regions.” The interrelated impacts of climate change will eventually have an ongoing effect on the integrity of our water, energy, and transportation systems, which in turn could compromise the economy and even national security.
More than 80% of all U.S. residents live in urban areas. Many of these areas have roads, bridges, and buildings that are already showing signs of age and disrepair. Their decline will only be exacerbated by heat waves, storm surges, rising tides, and other weather extremes.
Suburban and Rural Communities
While climate change resilience is often discussed in the context of urban infrastructure, it is important to note that more suburban and rural communities are being affected. These communities tend to be highly dependent on natural resources, which can be compromised by climate change. The National Climate Assessment notes that the effects of climate change can adversely impact agriculture, forestry, and outdoor recreation — the activities that often provide the backbone of rural economies.
Another problem comes from the remote nature of rural and suburban communities, which can be isolated from urban infrastructure. Lack of easy access to transportation and healthcare resources, combined with local governments’ lack of institutional resources to respond to climate change, are all problematic.
Another concerning impact of climate change is population displacement. According to the World Bank, climate change is already a primary driver behind migration, and by 2050 could contribute to more than 143 million people being displaced from their homes.
Water scarcity, food shortages, and rising sea levels are three of the primary ways in which climate change leads to population displacement. Scientists predict that this will lead to many individuals from poor, rural communities (particularly in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia) relocating to larger urban areas, where the infrastructure is already overburdened.
Building Climate Change-Resilient Infrastructure
Engineers and engineering students have a major opportunity to lead the way in designing climate-resilient infrastructure, a process that requires high-level strategic planning as well as precise execution.
Initial Planning and Design
Before construction begins, an initial planning and design phase is critical. The planning phase requires engineers to assess the potential for damage and other environmental impacts, and to think critically about climate-related hazards that pose a threat to the region. This allows them to make informed decisions about the infrastructure they design, combining functionality with an appropriate risk tolerance.
Infrastructure is designed to comply with existing building codes, yet it’s also the engineer’s job to understand how many building codes are out of date and ill equipped to address the climate crisis. As such, infrastructure design should be undertaken with a proactive approach, often going above and beyond what current building codes suggest.
Using Environmentally Friendly Materials
Another element of climate-resilient infrastructure is the careful selection and sourcing of building materials. Engineers who are environmentally conscious will always want to use building materials that have a minimal environmental footprint. Some examples include:
- Biobased materials
- Certified wood
- Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs)
- Recycled steel and other metals
These are just some of the options available for designing infrastructure with materials that minimize any adverse ecological impact.
Along with choosing the right materials, engineers and designers must also be zealous about their material waste. This includes using reusable materials whenever possible, and ensuring that items are properly recycled at the end of their useful life. Carefully disposing of waste is an important step in developing infrastructures with minimal environmental footprints.
It should also be noted that infrastructure should be designed in a way that moderates energy consumption. Currently, buildings account for 75% of the electricity and 40% of the total energy that is consumed in the United States — but engineers can implement designs that offset this consumption. Renewable energy sources, including solar and wind energy, are seen as key resources in the effort to curb climate change.
Addressing Current and Future Climate Threats
One of the largest challenges in designing climate-resilient infrastructure is planning not just for current impacts, but also safeguarding against future climate threats. As an article from Smithsonian.com puts it: “Natural systems are changing at a rapid pace, and cities face an urgent need to upgrade their infrastructure in a way that helps them mitigate damage both now and in the long term. Engineers, in seeking climate change resilience, must use the available data and trend lines to ensure their designs will not become antiquated by emerging climate threats.”
Additional Information Regarding Climate Change Resilience
There are other considerations for engineers and engineering students to look at as they weigh both the challenges and opportunities of developing climate change-resilient buildings and structures.
Economic benefits and challenges of eco-friendly infrastructure
While contemplating environmental impact, it’s also important to study economic impact. As the National Climate Assessment notes, the impact of climate change can pose hazards to energy supply, agriculture, and far beyond. The economic toll may be acutely felt in both heavily urbanized and rural areas. Additionally, climate change is poised to increase transportation costs throughout the country.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), measures to curb climate change and its impact can sometimes produce financial burdens in the private sector, particularly as outmoded technologies must be replaced, carbon emissions capped, etc. Ultimately, a focus on renewable energy and recyclable materials, as well as rerouting of transportation systems and energy supplies, can produce long-term economic benefits. The challenge comes in weighing the initial costs of implementation with these long-term savings.
Difficulty with city and government regulations
There is also a regulatory component to address when it comes to engineering climate-resilient infrastructure. Simply put, engineers must plan and design within the bounds of both municipal and federal regulations.
The Earth Institute at Columbia University notes that these regulations cannot only be complex, but potentially at odds with one another. The best approach to climate change regulation may be a series of gradual changes that take this complexity into account, and provide engineers with both incentives and disincentives.
Spreading knowledge and awareness about climate change resilience
A final, crucial element in the quest for climate-resilient infrastructure is raising awareness and informing the public about what should be done and what actions are being taken. Ideally, this involves promoting and presenting infrastructure upgrades through robust public messaging, clearly outlining both the risks and the opportunities of developing greater climate change resilience.
Building Climate Change-Resilient Infrastructure
The threats of climate change can feel daunting. Their effects have already proven disruptive. Avenues and opportunities abound, however, for individuals to spearhead progress and make positive changes. Engineers in particular can play a significant role in equipping our cities, suburbs, and rural communities to successfully fight climate threats.