Tulane Professor Testifies to US Senate Committee About Climate Impacts

NEW ORLEANS — From Tulane University:

As extreme heat scorches the southwest, homes and businesses flood in the northeast and smoke funnels into the U.S. from Canadian wildfires, the physical impacts of climate change have arguably never been greater.

The cost of such extreme events to the nation’s infrastructure will be enormous, Tulane University climate adaptation scholar Jesse M. Keenan told a U.S. Senate Committee on the Budget on July 26. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards was also scheduled to testify.

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As extreme weather events become more common, there are increasing demands for better design and management of infrastructure systems, said Keenan, noting that the country already has a $2.6 trillion outstanding bill just to maintain its current infrastructure— a figure projected to grow by tens of billions of dollars each year due to climate change.

“A failure to recognize and account for these costs will not only undermine the reliability of our infrastructure, it will undermine our global competitiveness,” said Keenan, the Favrot II Associate Professor of Real Estate and Urban Planning at Tulane University’s School of Architecture.

Hurricane Sandy is an example of how to gauge what’s to come. When it hit New York in 2012, Sandy was deemed a one in 1,200-year event. With rising sea levels, it is projected to be less than a one in 100-year event by 2100.

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In particular, municipal bond market investors, civic leaders and ordinary residents are all vulnerable to a degrading tax base in the face of repeated climate-caused disasters. Paradise, California, for example, has been teetering on default of its bond obligations after a wildfire destroyed most of the town and its infrastructure, Keenan said.

Operations and maintenance costs for infrastructure, expensive even without climate impacts, are perhaps one of the most immediate infrastructure cost burdens today, according to Keenan. These costs are only expected to grow with additional expenses for things like increased energy for pumping more stormwater or repeated road resurfacing for areas that face more ice than snow with warmer winters.

The U.S. has limited research on how to anticipate the total costs of climate impacts over the life of various infrastructure systems, and the country is grossly behind in deploying climate-sensitive design and engineering standards, he said. The failure or degradation of infrastructure systems impacts sectors that are central to the social and economic welfare of the country, including energy, transportation, and water. In many cases, costs fall on taxpayers.

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“As this country embarks on a new era of infrastructure investment, we have to ask ourselves some difficult questions,” Keenan said. “Are we designing today’s infrastructure to handle tomorrow’s load and environmental demand? In high-risk zones, where will we invest, and where will we disinvest in infrastructure? And finally, are we accounting and budgeting for the anticipated increased costs in operational expenses?”

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