Wednesday, July 27, 2016

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An Engineer Looks at Climate Change


Outline of notes on climate change:

·       Many names and signal word/phrases for the same thing – climate change, global warming, extreme weather, etc.  This has produced a “War of the Words” – the banning of certain words in places like Florida (i.e., global warming).

·       The scientific community is clear – between 1991 and 2012, a review of 13,950 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles found that only 24 papers rejected anthropogenic global warming.

·       There is both an “input” and “output” side to the climate change debate and discussion.  The “input” side is dominated by reducing carbon emissions before reaching and passing a carbon dioxide threshold, while the “output” side looks at the ramifications of either incremental or absolute climate change – severe droughts, flooding, land use planning, resiliency, emergency response, etc.  The bulk of the AEC industry will benefit from climate change on the “output” side – helping clients and communities adapt to a changing world.  The benefits of both the “input” and “output” sides of climate change will also be positive for the AEC industry – from renewable energy to new sources of water supply to flood control.  The AEC industry is the ONLY industry positioned to solve a broad range of “output” climate change problems our clients face this century.  Our collective weakness and prison of our success has been incremental thinking – where thinking about climate change solutions will require bolder and more expansive thinking on a rough journey to an uncertain future.

·       Climate change is a “creeping” problem – temporally it moves at a snail’s pace.  Historically, we have individually and collectively been terrible at managing slow moving problems (i.e., the financial solvency of Social Security is a classic example).  The difference in the concept of time is hugely problematic for the political aristocracy when dealing with creeping problems – the one-year planning cycle versus the 100-year problem.  There currently exists no penalty for climate change planning inertia in 2016.  Keep in mind the more likely scenario of the politics catching up to the science is at an inflection point or trigger event (i.e., a hurricane in Miami that kills 25,000 people in 2035).

·       Discussing climate change directly interfaces with all segments of modern society – social, economic, environmental, political, etc.  Climate change is viewed as a “wicked problem” – hugely complex, global, systems based, and interdisciplinary.

·       Climate change over this century will produce both economic winners and losers.  Canada and Russia are expected to benefit economically, while equatorial Africa will not.  The same holds for the United States.  A warming planet could produce economic growth in Montana (i.e., as a new retirement beacon) and hurt Chicago due to killer heat waves.  Places like Ohio might benefit from climate change (i.e., a global manufacturing center with more reliable water resources and a milder climate) while places like Arizona might face mounting water supply woes that restricts future development.  Climate change will produce a rebalancing of the world in terms of economics and population via climate change forced migration – producing broad global and regional debates and problems.

·       Climate change is viewed globally as a monolithic problem – but the reality is one of regional and local context. 

·       The climate change debate has produced public segmentation centered along political ideology.  Some of this segmentation is focused on fundamental debates regarding the limits of economic growth and the notion of sustainability. The political spectrum produces broad support for things like increasing transportation funding, but little broad support for anything under the banner of “Climate Change” infrastructure improvements.

·       In a Pew Research national survey from March 9, 2016 – 45% of respondents agreed with the statement that “Climate change is a very serious problem.”  There is a gender gap in terms of the climate change – women are more concerned about climate change than men (i.e., a function of political ideology – 52% of women are registered Democrats versus 44% of men).  We are increasingly a 50%/50% nation – climate change is just another example on the road to 50/50.

·       One critical “output” of global warming/climate change is water – either too much water or not enough.  Rising atmospheric moisture from global warming will increase both the intensity and variability of rainfall – especially in places like Ohio (i.e., too much rainfall) and Texas (i.e., too little rainfall).  Sea level rise and higher coastal storm surges will increasingly be problematic – 40% of the U.S. population lives in a county that is on a sea coast.  Climate change and the impact on littoralization – the tendency for people and businesses to cluster on coastlines – needs to be watched this century.

·       Flooding will be a dominate climate change theme – heavy downpours are increasing.  Across most of the U.S., the heaviest rainfall events have become heavier and more frequent.  The amount of rain failing on the heaviest rain days has also increased over the past decades.  Since 1991, the amount of rain failing in very heavy precipitation events has been significantly above average.  The increase has been greater in the Northeast, Midwest, and upper Great Plains – more than 30% above the 1901-1960 average.

·       Communities will face the “known knowns” of climate change – more frequent flooding is an example.  These types of risks and consequences are manageable and well-defined.  The bigger risks are the “unknown unknowns” – the futuristic Stephen King-like “zombie” algae blooms of 2040 that threaten water quality in Lake Erie. 

·       In terms of coastal communities – both the insurance and municipal bond markets might be drivers of initial change in the context of climate change.  Insurance availability will clarify coastal “defend” or “retreat” decisions, while the financial markets will demand increasing assurances that communities are thinking about the risks associated with the climate change.

·       Our climate change future might be about planning and designing for resilience – the ability to bounce back more quickly and effectively in the face of extreme weather events, economic shocks, and social change.  The Rockefeller Foundation has established the Global 100 – communities around the globe working on resiliency.  Below is a sample of the resiliency challenges identified by the cities from citizen surveys and meetings.  Many of the concerns directly interface with current and future climate change projections (i.e., flooding) while many others paint a “Welcome to Hell” future where aging and failing infrastructure collides with extreme weather events of increasing frequency and magnitudes this century.

El Paso
Dallas
Louisville
Norfolk
Chicago
Coastal Flooding
Economic Inequality
Aging Infrastructure
Aging Infrastructure
Aging Infrastructure
Drought
Infrastructure Failure
Blizzard
Coastal Flooding
Endemic Crime and Violence
Epidemic of Drug and Alcohol Abuse
Poor Health Infrastructure
Disease Outbreak
Economic Shifts
Infrastructure Failure
Poor Health Infrastructure
Poor Transportation System
Heat Wave
Rainfall Flooding
Rainfall Flooding
Rainfall Flooding
 
Infrastructure Failure
Rising Sea Level and Coastal Erosion
Social Inequality
Social Inequality
 
Overtaxed/Under Developed/Unreliable Transportation System
Social Inequality
 
 
 
Poor Air Quality/Pollution
 
 
 
 
Rainfall Flooding
 
 

·       Cities, especially large urban centers (i.e., The City-State), will probably be forced to take the lead on climate change planning in a federal/state fiscally constrained YOYO (You’re on Your Own) World.  Technology, resiliency thinking, creativity, and innovation probably will reside with cities like Columbus, Louisville, Dallas, etc.  Cities are getting progressively better at addressing and managing “wicked problems” on their own (some of this comes from a class of skilled and gifted Mayors) – look for this to continue with climate change.

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