Report: Climate Change Will Be Our Aging Cities' Biggest Problem

The White House just unveiled this year's National Climate Assessment, and it holds dire warnings: climate change is already impacting every corner of the United States, and our cities are particularly vulnerable to increasingly unpredictable weather swings.

The full National Climate Assessment report, which you can read here, takes an extensive look at the global, national, and regional impact already felt as a result of climate change. But with about 80% of the United States population living in cities and metropolitan areas, the subsection dealing with urban infrastructure is particularly important for the average city dweller. So far, the news isn't looking good: According to the report, our outdated infrastructure is going to be a problem.

Many cities depend on infrastructure, like water and sewage systems, roads, bridges, and power plants, that is aging and in need of repair or replacement. Rising sea levels, storm surges, heat waves, and extreme weather events will compound these issues, stressing or even overwhelming these essential services.

Chillingly, the report points out that climate change has already affected regions in every corner of the United States. While an average national warming of less than two degrees Fahrenheit in the past century may seem minuscule, zooming in to the regional or local level reveals large, unprecedented swings in weather patterns.

In particular, the report shows a dramatic increase in the frequency of torrential rains, especially in the eastern half of the country. The northeast in particular has experienced a 71 percent increase in "very heavy rain events," posing a particular challenge for coastal cities like New York, which have already begun bracing for the next mega-storm.

The report goes on to highlight the way that extreme weather events can lead to a domino-effect disruption of city infrastructure:

Although infrastructures and urban systems are often considered individually – for example, transportation or water supply or wastewater/drainage – they are usually highly interactive and interdependent. Such interdependencies can lead to cascading disruptions throughout urban infrastructures. These disruptions, in turn, can result in unexpected impacts on communication, water, and public health sectors, at least in the short term.

Currently, there are no national regulations or guidelines in place to help cities adapt infrastructure for changing weather patterns. The report encourages cities to proactively include infrastructure changes into standard operations, so as to avoid having to develop isolated responses after the event of large-scale weather disruptions:

By integrating climate change considerations into daily operations, these efforts can forestall the need to develop a new and isolated set of climate change-specific policies or procedures. This strategy enables cities and other government agencies to take advantage of existing funding sources and programs, and achieve co-benefits in areas such as sustainability, public health, economic development, disaster preparedness, and environmental justice. Pursuing low-cost, no-regrets options is a particularly attractive short-term strategy for many cities.

The National Climate Report is supervised and approved by a large committee that includes representation by the oil industry. In 1990, Congress ordered the reports to occur every four years, though this is only the third report to be published (compliance lagged under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush).

While the report points out the steps that states and cities are taking to adapt to unavoidable changes in weather patterns, the scientists who penned the study warn that these efforts may prove inadequate compared to the changes that are being predicted. Let's hope those in charge start to take notice. [National Climate Assessment 2014 Report via NYT]

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