Commentary: What do building collapses in the US have to do with climate change? Plenty
What happened in Miami and the devastating heatwaves in parts of North America show that the effects of poor infrastructure and the impacts of climate change are coming home to roost, says climate scientist Benjamin Horton.
SINGAPORE: The tragic Miami condominium collapse last week has raised concerns over the role of climate change and whether coastal areas like those in South Florida could see more buildings become vulnerable to collapse.
The incident was likely due to major structural damage from “persistent water leaks and years of exposure corrosive salt air” that ultimately compromised its foundations, according to a report in the New York Times.
A 2018 engineering report on the structure had warned of “significant cracks and breaks in the concrete”, in an area where salty water pushing up from below could weaken foundations.
The tragedy came as cities in the greater Miami area are already experiencing the effects of higher sea levels and announcing expensive efforts to mitigate them.
Miami must spend at least US$3.8 billion in the next 40 years to keep the city dry from rising seas, according to a draft of the city’s long-awaited and newly released stormwater master plan.
That will buy 100 new mega stormwater pumps, 1.8 m tall sea walls, thousands of injection wells and a network of underground pipes so big and wide even the tallest NBA player could stroll through them without bumping his head.
What happened in Miami last month is indicative of how poor infrastructure and the worst impacts of climate change are meeting with devastating effect on human lives – even in the world’s most powerful country.
While President Joe Biden ran on the most ambitious climate platform ever by a United States presidential candidate, his administration must now move with great urgency to fix the country’s infrastructure to withstand the massive storms, fires and heatwaves that show climate change is not a problem for the future.
WHY THE HEATWAVES?
The reality also that climate change will make heat waves more frequent and more intense, is now playing out in the US, Canada, and in many parts of the world that could become increasingly uninhabitable.
The Pacific North-West, known for its moderate climate, is experiencing the most severe heatwave in its history of the Pacific Northwest, obliterating scores of long-standing records in both the US and Canada.
Last Tuesday (Jun 29), in British Columbia in the village of Lytton, temperatures soared to 49.6 degrees Celsius, setting Canada’s national heat record for a third straight day.
Extreme heat kills more people each year in the US than any other kind of natural disaster. Globally, its impacts are enormous. During historic heat waves — like 1995 in Chicago, 2003 in Europe, or 2019 in France — thousands of people can die from heatstroke, and many more suffer severe health impacts that can last long after the heat dissipates.
What is going on? Are these extreme weather events signals of a dangerous, human-made shift in Earth’s climate? Or are we just going through a natural stretch of bad luck?
The short answer is actually both.
The heatwave was caused by two pressure systems, one coming from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, and the other from James Bay and Hudson Bay in Canada producing a “heat dome”. This type of weather system can always happen.
But weather systems cannot by themselves explain the record-breaking extreme heat. Something else is happening too: The Earth is getting dangerously warmer.
The latest batch of extreme weather events in Russia, India, and Iraq, suggest that the climate is entering uncharted territory, and that would mean that weather will increasingly fall outside the historical norm.
In science, a new field of climate research has emerged and is beginning to explore the human fingerprint on extreme weather, such as floods, heatwaves, droughts and storms.
Known as “extreme event attribution”, scientists found that without human influence, it would be almost impossible to hit a new record and such the hot June recorded in the Pacific northwest region.
With climate change, it can occur every 15 years or so. And if greenhouse gas emissions continue as it is, the event can happen as often as every year or two, by the end of the 21st century, which would be terrifying odds.
(Floods, fires and droughts have always happened, but what are the challenges for insurance and addressing climate change? What’s the difference between physical risk and transition risk? Find out in CNA's The Climate Conversations.)
REVAMPING POOR INFRASTRUCTURE
Thankfully, there is now a growing acceptance among both Democratic and Republican political leaders, that climate change is a driving force fueling many extreme weather events, particularly for heat waves and storms.
But just as important as the US keeping to its climate commitments, investment in US infrastructure is sorely needed.
The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the United States “D” range grades in aviation, dams, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, public parks, roads, schools, stormwater, transit and wastewater.
Public investment in infrastructure, as a share of gross domestic product, has been in decline for the past half-century.
The consequences of failing to invest in infrastructure are appearing nationwide, in the form of dangerously degraded roads, bridges, and other assets. Many transport facilities are also below grade, tunnels like those in the New York subway were severely damaged from flooding during Hurricane Sandy.
Climate change will also throw up more challenges for ageing infrastructure. Airports at low elevations along the coast are at risk of sea-level rise. Extreme heat can cause road buckling, freeze-thaw cycles cause pavement cracking and potholes.
The extreme weather that compromised the power grid in Texas earlier this year served as a stark reminder of the ways in which climate change can threaten systems that lacked strong public investment.
In mid-February, the temperature plummeted, dropping several inches of snow and leaving millions without power. But 10 years ago, in 2011, energy regulators warned the state’s electric-grid operators that they were ill-prepared for an unprecedented winter storm.
Despite these warnings, the state remained unprepared. Equipment froze at power plants, leaving about half of the state’s electricity-generating capacity offline. Natural gas wells iced over, slowing the fuel supply that heats homes.
Millions were left without electricity, at least one city turned off its water supply, and Harris County, where Houston is located, reported hundreds of cases of carbon monoxide poisoning as Texans turned on their own generators to warm up.
INFRASTRUCTURE A KEY AGENDA IN CLIMATE CHANGE
Infrastructure is a powerful driver of economic growth and inclusive development, capable of boosting aggregate demand today and laying the foundations for future growth.
It is also a key element of the climate-change agenda. Done badly, infrastructure is a major part of the problem; done right, it is a major part of the solution.
The design of infrastructure typically has assumed a future climate that is much the same as today. However, a changing climate and the resulting more extreme weather events mean those climate bands are becoming outdated, leaving infrastructure operating outside of its tolerance levels.
This can present direct threats to the assets as well as significant knock-on effects for those relying on the services those assets deliver.
Strong institutions are also needed to ensure the feasibility, quality, and impact of that investment. Particularly important is the capacity to develop strong project pipelines and institutional frameworks for public-private partnerships.
Finally, there is also the need for technological innovation to provide increasingly efficient components of low-carbon, climate-resilient infrastructure. That is why investment in research and development – especially in renewable-energy technologies – must also increase significantly.
With the right approach, the US can achieve both infrastructure investment and climate action simultaneously, building a more prosperous and sustainable future.
Professor Benjamin P Horton is the Director of NTU’s Earth Observatory of Singapore.