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Climate change and infrastructure


The claims of the climate denialist faction of American politics notwithstanding, the two are deeply intertwined issues:

The Portland Streetcar is 20 years old, making it relatively sprightly for infrastructure in the United States. Yet it was built for a different geological epoch. On Sunday, while Portland suffered through what was then its hottest day ever, the system started to melt. As the temperature reached 112 degrees Fahrenheit, a power cable on a major bridge warped, twisted around some metal hardware, and scorched. Elsewhere, the wires that run above the track expanded and sagged so much that they risked touching the train cars. By mid-afternoon, the streetcar system had shut down. The trams, which run on 100 percent renewable energy, seem to offer exactly the sort of urban fast transit that the country needs to reduce carbon pollution. But they were not prepared for—they could not withstand—one of the region’s first wrenching encounters with the remade atmosphere.


The Biden administration has been teased for trying to stuff climate change into an infrastructure frame. But this week has affirmed the basic logic of its move. Adaptation, long the neglected arm of climate policy, will need to lead our efforts to address rising global temperatures. “Most of the infrastructure that we’re going to use in the next several decades, it’s already here; it’s already in the ground,” Constantine Samaras, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told me. “We have to figure out ways to make that stuff, those systems, resilient to increasing extremes.”

So far we haven’t met that standard. Even as the climate has diverged from its long-time normal range, the construction of physical infrastructure has not. “The public might look at engineering and say, ‘Of course they’re designing for a future climate; it would be silly if they weren’t,’” Samaras said. “But we’re basically not doing it.” In 2018, he and his colleagues looked at whether any state department of transportation was planning for the precipitation thresholds of the future. Essentially none of them were, he said.

The fact that a lot of America’s infrastructure is inadequate to deal with a steady increase in deadly heat waves is a major problem.

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