The combination of higher oceans and more rain increases the likelihood of flooding at the coasts. At the same time, that increased surface-level heat more rapidly strips away moisture, leading to deeper, longer droughts.
So we see our already aging infrastructure — legally, I’m supposed to refer to it as “creaky” in any newspaper article — further strained by the changing planet around it.
We don’t need to look far. Last month, a staggering heat wave crushed the northwest, leading to nearly 200 deaths in Oregon and Washington alone. The Oregonian had a glass-half-full look at the effects on infrastructure, pointing out that “buildings, bridges, roads mostly withstood” the heat. Mostly, but not entirely. In Portland, for example, the streetcar system shut down not simply because it was so hot outside but because its infrastructure literally couldn’t handle the heat.
In other places, the heat softened power lines, causing them to droop and increasing the risk of fire or outages. That heat wasn’t simply one of the random weather events that can happen in any given place in any given year. It was, instead, almost certainly a function of global warming. It was, one researcher wrote on Facebook, “the most anomalous extreme heat event ever observed on Earth since records began two centuries ago.”
On the East Coast, the situation has been different. Thunderstorms in New York City dropped so much water so quickly that the city’s infrastructure wasn’t able to handle it. Roadways and subways were quickly flooded.
Whether that storm was directly a function of climate change or simply a fluke of the weather is hard to say. This is one of the political challenges that climate advocates have long faced; it’s hard to say that any particular thing was a function of the changing climate. But New York City will likely see more rapid deluges like the one on Thursday in a warming world, and the infrastructure is clearly not well equipped for it.
The flooding in New York came as Tropical Storm Elsa arrived in the region. Elsa was the fifth named storm of this hurricane season (hence its name beginning with E), the earliest in a season there have been so many storms reaching that level of power. (The “E” storm usually arrives in late August.) Elsa was also unusual in how rapidly it gained strength.
On Wednesday, the New York Times published an extensive report looking at another way in which rising seas is threatening American cities. You are probably by now familiar with the threat posed to places like Florida, where seas are rising by several millimeters a year. The state’s been struggling to contain rising seas, with Broward County officials earlier this year indicating that its flood-control infrastructure was “close to collapse.” Some scientists blame frequent inundations for having contributed to the tragedy at Champlain Towers South last month, though, again, such attribution is difficult.
The Times report, though, focused on Chicago, where a long-standing system for using control of the Chicago River to prevent flooding was undercut earlier this year by the height of the lake into which it empties, Lake Michigan.
“Climate change has started pushing Lake Michigan’s water levels toward uncharted territory,” the Times’s Dan Egan wrote, “as patterns of rain, snowfall and evaporation are transformed by the warming world.”
And that, once again, means that the city’s infrastructure becomes necessarily less useful.
From the outset, President Biden has argued that his extensive infrastructure proposal should actively include consideration of climate change. When it was first introduced, I noted that it shared themes with the Green New Deal, largely centered on more proactively addressing how the economy and country will be reshaped by climate change. But the initial proposal also included an enormous amount of spending aimed at ameliorating both the effects and the exacerbation of warming, from improving energy efficiency to building more robust physical infrastructure.
When Biden and a bipartisan group of senators last month announced a tentative policy agreement on infrastructure, though, it largely excluded many of the climate-focused proposals that Biden had sought. Climate activists and other Democrats were quickly critical.
“When Democrats agree to water [an infrastructure package] down more, they’re condemning Americans to untold devastation,” Lauren Maunus, advocacy director for the Sunrise Movement, told the Associated Press.
But Biden has competing priorities, including a stated desire to work with Republicans on legislation. Since climate change was years ago looped into partisan culture-war fighting, even sympathetic Republican legislators have little political space to support overt efforts to address warming.
As you might expect, the Biden administration also noticed that the climate was doing its part to highlight the urgency of addressing climate change in infrastructure spending.
“We can’t wait any longer to deal with climate crisis,” Biden said in a speech this week. “We see it with our own eyes and it’s time to act.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg made that point explicitly after the flooding in the country’s most populous city.
“Yesterday’s floods in New York are a reminder of what is at stake if we do not build resilient infrastructure while meeting the climate crisis,” he wrote on Twitter. He later added, “American transit doesn’t just need repairs, it needs upgrades to withstand the climate challenges of the 21st century.”
Even with the events of the last month, that’s easier said than done.