Subway tunnels built for normal weather conditions are flooded by a superstorm; roads constructed for historic temperature means are buckling under extreme heat; levees built for one-in-100-year storms are tested every few years and sometimes fail. Infrastructure built to existing building-code standards is not robust enough for an altered and changing climatic future.
"Clearly, we are not prepared," says Tom Wilbanks, a fellow at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a coordinating lead chapter author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) fourth assessment report and other major papers on climate adaptation, including for the recent draft "National Climate Assessment" by a federal advisory committee.
Many engineers and builders are past the point of arguing about why these events are happening. Instead, they are focused on ways to rebuild or harden buildings, roads, power lines, water systems, military bases and other infrastructure to withstand increasingly frequent extreme weather events and the inevitable likelihood of sea-level rise and increased temperatures.
"This is the new normal—we can't just say we can manage through this," says Cindy Wallis-Lage, Black & Veatch president of its global water business. "You would have to live in a box to not notice that we have seen changes. It is negligent for us to ignore it."
So-called climate adaptation is a growing practice among those designing infrastructure and operating systems. Climate mitigation—adaptation's better-known brother—is the effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and it is often a difficult topic for builders and engineers to address because there is no clear policy on how to reduce those emissions.
"It's very apparent that mitigation is a global issue, and it's going to take a long time for the global community to get a handle on mitigation," says Bill Goran, director of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Center for the Advancement of Sustainability Innovations. CASI is part of the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign, Ill.
While mitigation may help reduce the intensity of the impact of climate change, adaptation helps avoid some of those impacts by building more-resilient infrastructure and operating more-flexible systems. Science shows that even if carbon-dioxide emissions were halted today, the increased greenhouse gases and their impacts will linger for about 100 years.
Without adaptation, government and business could be hit with substantial future bills that, in some cases, easily will outstrip the cost of adaptation improvements. Climate change could result in increased infrastructure maintenance and replacement costs that will rise from 10% to 45% by 2080, according to a paper by James Neumann and Jason Price for the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Resources for the Future.
Adaptation is such a crucial issue that, just last month, the federal Government Accountability Office listed climate change and its impacts as one of the greatest financial threats to the federal government. The U.S., it says, "needs a government-wide strategic approach with strong leadership to manage related risks."
Indeed, while there is a growing amount of discussion about adapting to a changing climate—especially after Superstorm Sandy—there is little in the way of action. New York City, often touted as the leader in planning for climate change, was hit with billions of dollars of damage from a storm that it expected but wasn't quite prepared for.
A draft National Climate Assessment issued last month gave a dire warning about climate adaptation: "Society and its infrastructure were designed for the climate of the past, not for the rapidly changing climate of the present or the future." Elsewhere, the report states, "The pace and extent of adaptation activities are not proportional to the risks to people, property, infrastructure and ecosystems from climate change."