Opinion: Climate change should shape our infrastructure investments
It was raining when I got on the phone. A panicked voice on the other end said water was rising in her house and she could not get her elderly mother-in-law up the stairs. As she pleaded for help, something seemed off – her house was a five-minute drive away from mine, but there was only a light rain falling when I peered outside my house.
When I called my fire chief moments later, he told me two inches of rain had fallen in a short time over that one neighborhood creating flash flooding and overwhelming the sewer system. Yet, the rest of Syracuse was fine. We immediately responded to the neighbors – including the one who called me at home – and prevented any loss of life. We cleaned up the aftermath, assessed the infrastructure impact, and discussed the unprecedented nature of the event – a narrow geographic area with a large volume of water falling in record time. Two weeks later the same exact thing happened. Welcome to the new normal.
As a country, we are in the midst of a vibrant debate about a governing agenda. The state of our infrastructure is raised frequently. Just about everyone can point to a pothole- scarred road, a deteriorating bridge, or a leaking water main. Yes, we as a country need to bring our vaunted infrastructure systems back to prominence. But simply looking at them in a vacuum by excluding the impact climate change is having – and will continue to have – undercuts our ability to have a functioning economy and society. Look no further than Superstorm Sandy’s impact on New York and New Jersey and the drought’s continuing impact on California as prime examples of this inconvenient truth.
Microbursts, droughts, and unfamiliar events are here to stay and public policy needs to recognize this. Indeed, the public discourse on infrastructure can no longer be limited to simply bringing infrastructure systems up to a “state of good repair.” Those standards were implemented for a different time. Parts of Syracuse’s sewer system were built as far back as the 1860s and designed with a capacity for 1 to 2-year storm events. This June, experts said we had two 25-50-year storm events two weeks apart. Syracuse is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of places facing this daunting challenge. Our infrastructure is old and neglected just at the very time when our climate is creating unprecedented change.
As a country we need to seize the opportunity to create policy recognizing the important connection between climate change and infrastructure. Failure to do so will lead to investing precious resources into failing systems and weaken our ability to compete in the modern economy. In contrast, meeting this challenge will create prodigious benefits. Not only will it give us a better quality of life, but modernizing our infrastructure to face these issues will harness engineering talent, create jobs, and develop new products and new technology that are needed around the world.
My office overlooks the remnants of the Erie Canal – an infrastructure project conceived and built to meet the challenges of a very different time, and yet the lessons from that audacious project also ring true today. The national candidates asking to be our leaders should not forget our most American of traditions – meeting and overcoming challenges and transforming the world in the process. Melding the issues of infrastructure and climate change is just the opportunity we have to demonstrate our American ingenuity once again.
Stephanie Miner is the mayor of Syracuse.