Climate Adaptation: Acting in the near-term to Make Infrastructure More Resilient in the long-term
This article is the first in a series of op-eds from leading voices in the engineering community, addressing engineering action on sustainability, resilience, and climate change.
Author: George Karagiannis, Director of the Engineering Leadership Group
Infrastructure systems underpin modern society and are needed for human well-being. With over half of the world now living in cities, infrastructure systems are also crucial drivers of economic growth and development. When infrastructure assets are located in hazard-prone areas that are impacted by climatic and demographic changes, they increasingly get disrupted by disaster events, resulting in greater losses from the direct damage to the assets themselves and indirect losses stemming from the ensuing disruption to daily economic activity in the impacted communities.
Scientists continue to investigate the link between climate change and disasters. Their working conclusions are that, although no single event can be entirely attributed to climate change, extreme weather events are likely becoming more frequent as well as more potent by a changing background climate. For example, a recent study estimated that the rainfall that caused the 2022 floods in Pakistan, which has claimed the lives of more than 1,700 people and affected 33 million, was 50% more intense than would have been the case without global warming temperatures.
Adapting to climate change is a here-and-now challenge that will require all of us to make a long-term difference. No one is redundant in the fight for climate resilience. In what follows, we highlight three areas where the public and private sector can work together to make our infrastructure more resilient over its lifecycle.
We need to integrate resilience into infrastructure governance both horizontally and vertically
Governments need to break silos within organizations as well as foster interagency coordination. Organizational barriers and local politics have traditionally stifled internal as well as interagency cooperation, yet this is exactly what is urgently needed today if more meaningful outcomes on infrastructure resilience are to be accomplished for the long-term. In most countries, jurisdiction over infrastructure resilience is shared among several government entities and across all administrative functions and levels. At the national level, jurisdiction over aspects of infrastructure resilience to climate change may lie with entities like Ministries or Departments of the Environment, Energy, Transportation, Civil Protection, the Economy, the Interior and possibly more. Sub-national governments typically also have some jurisdiction over infrastructure that directly or indirectly impact resilience in their territory, or aspects that greatly impact resilience, such as the operation of the infrastructure.
Several methods stand out when it comes to horizontal cooperation: interagency agreements, interagency committees, designating a lead agency and a clearance procedure, and other administrative mechanisms. Vertical coordination is a bit more straightforward due to more directly shared focus areas and interests, but also can be enhanced through functional support areas and departments operating with common mechanisms such as climate-related terminology, systems, strategies, and performance indicators with improved organizational and asset lifecycle resilience as a well-defined and fully shared goal. One vertical coordination example is national governments establishing the rules and standards for local governments to operate critical infrastructure. Despite being somewhat stronger than the horizontal approach, vertical coordination is far from perfect, and usually comes with the need for arbitrating jurisdictional controversies.
Likewise, countries can use different mechanisms to bring together sub-national governments, which have local knowledge but sometimes lack ample subject-matter expertise and resources, with national- or even international-level organizations, which may have subject matter expertise and financial capability, but lack the local know-how. For example, the European Union recently adopted the Critical Entities Resilience Directive, which requires Member States to adopt by a strategy for enhancing the resilience of critical infrastructure systems, conduct a risk assessment, report their findings to the European Commission, and support their critical infrastructure operators in their resilience efforts.
We need to rapidly increase the uptake of climate risk assessments and adaptation planning
Infrastructure systems are long-term investments, which require long-term vision and a strategic approach that carefully weighs and balances lifecycle (not just short-term capital) costs and benefits. Climate risk assessments and climate change adaptation plans seem to be an increasingly employed method of establishing long-term goals and objectives to guide infrastructure development with due consideration of climate adaptation and resilience. Climate risk assessments evolved from disaster risk assessments, a traditional tool supporting hazard mitigation planning. Disaster risk assessments include an analysis of the potential impacts of hazard events to the jurisdiction’s assets and a summary of the assets most vulnerable to the identified hazards. In the previous decade, climate change was initially considered as a natural hazard in its own capacity, but subsequently it has also been addressed as a factor increasing the potential frequency and severity of a range of weather-related natural hazards, such as storms and floods.
Climate adaptation plans are a relatively new tool, sometimes also taking climate mitigation and sustainability more broadly into account under the broader term “Climate Action Plans” – a topic that will be addressed in future articles. Climate adaptation plans are intended as a strategic-level plan taking into consideration environmental, economic, societal, cultural, and other parameters with regard to a jurisdiction’s adaptation to climate change as well as other concurrent changes such as demographic shifts. Their planning timeframe is usually considerably longer than that of hazard mitigation plans. A typical timeframe for climate adaptation plans is usually about 10 years, whereas hazard mitigation plans are typically revisited in shorter intervals such as every 3 years. Furthermore, climate adaptation plans usually span across multiple political cycles. For example, Greece’s National Climate Act requires the country’s newly established Ministry for Climate Crisis and Civil Protection to coordinate the multi-agency development of a National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy with a decade-long scope.
We need building codes and standards for the future
Building codes and design regulations have proven themselves as one of the most cost-effective hazard mitigation measures, and are also being updated more broadly to address climate adaption through multi-hazard assessment and design approaches. Because climate hazards are dynamic, code review processes including updates to hazard criteria must increase in frequency, pace and reference timeframe (i.e., to account for what conditions will be like in future decades rather than what conditions have been like historically). In other words, we need building codes that are crafted for the future, but this is best done as a synchronized international endeavor as opposed to each country, locality and agency doing it independently and in greatly varying times and ways.
Furthermore, climate change adaptation standards can be used to guide organizational approaches towards climate resilience. Examples include the ISO 14090:2019 standard on climate change adaptation principles and requirements, as well as the ISO 14091:2021 standard on climate change risk assessments.
While full standards and codes are being developed, practitioners can turn to guidance such as Infrastructure Pathways, an online resource that organizes and links over 100 resources on climate resilience and adaptation through a lifecycle approach.
About the author
George M. Karagiannis is the Engineering Leadership Group Director with Resilience First. Before joining Resilience First, George was Greece’s Deputy Secretary-General for Civil Protection. From 2016 to 2019, he was Technical Officer at the European Commission Joint Research Center, where his area of expertise revolved around emergency management, critical infrastructure protection, and hybrid threats.
A joint initiative of the International Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure and Resilience First, the Engineering Leadership Group (ELG) is the first of its kind peer-to-peer engagement platform with a vision to capture the voice of engineering-inclusive organizations working in the built environment worldwide.
The recently launched ELG Manifesto advocates for infrastructure that is fit for the future, while outlining actions that can be taken by engineering-inclusive organizations to advance the development of equitable, sustainable, and resilient infrastructure. It calls on private sector organizations to work closely with governments towards this goal. Read the full Manifesto here.