The California State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 2800 (AB-2800) in 2016 to address the dynamic nature of climate change impacts on the state’s infrastructure. The two-page bill mandated that the state form a working group of university professors and public sector leaders to research and discuss the effects and gave them two years to report their findings.

The working group of 14 engineers, architects and scientists went to work, considering ways to make infrastructure more resilient to climate change. The members provided guidance on integrating climate change impacts on engineering standards, along with ideas for engaging stakeholders and funding the changes that would result.  

The aptly titled report — “Paying It Forward” — focuses on how the state might prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. Within its 257 pages, the report makes 10 recommendations to the state on ways to address climate change impacts and prepare for a climate-resilient future.

From my perspective, the recommendations fall into three categories:

  • Inclusivity — Focus on ways to create resiliency plans that help everyone cope with climate change, beginning with those in disadvantaged communities. The goal is consistency.
  • Funding — The need for consistent long-term investment is another critical message in the report. Climate change is dynamic and demands ongoing funding.
  • Stakeholder Engagement — Civic and business leaders, technical professionals and other responsible officials must remain engaged in assessing and revising resiliency standards.

California now is using the report as a guide to formulate more specific regulations and standards to meet current needs. But what can be done today?

Although I was not a part of that working group, I can easily make the case, as a civil engineer, for applying new resilient design standards beyond critical infrastructure. To meet future resiliency and sustainability goals, we need to bring such standards into our homes.

Consider how the U.S. has successfully changed design standards in the past. When reducing energy consumption became a high national priority, for example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA's) Energy Star rating system and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) guidelines changed consumer buying habits by focusing their attention on product energy savings, alongside cost. Both consumer product certification programs allowed manufacturers to be more competitive while offering sustainable options.

A similar thing happened in the food industry, which saw organic food consumption double after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued national standards for organic foods. By replacing a patchwork of state and private standards with a single set of rules, USDA gave American consumers greater confidence in the safety of their organic food purchases.

Civil engineers believe climate change can and should also be attacked from the bottom up. Yes, we engineers should specify materials that meet the resiliency and sustainability goals for our critical infrastructure. However, what if there were a way for all of us to choose resilient and sustainable materials when we undertake home improvement projects as well? Wouldn’t it be great if we could choose the right nail, the best two-by-four and the most sustainable drywall for any project we undertake?

As in the days when there were no standards for “organic,” consumers currently have no way of knowing what “climate-change supportive” products might look like.

Just like how consumers can compare appliances by their Energy Star ratings, our nation needs a “Climate-Resilient Star” rating system for construction materials. And we need marketing efforts to educate the public and drive consumption. Hardware and home improvement stores, for example, can include sections for “Climate-Resilient Star” materials, making it easy for consumers to select the most climate-change appropriate materials and appliances.

Because climate change impacts vary by geographic region and by the structures being built, we need websites with easily accessible databases of information on such things as flooding and wildfire risks. Simplified data also must be available that provides guidance on designing for specific site conditions and addressing different cultural needs. It will be especially important to prioritize climate adaptation for vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. 

The resilient infrastructure movement, in other words, need not be focused entirely on California’s critical infrastructure. It can start with adapting the “critical infrastructure” at home, which includes any home improvement project from building a deck to remodeling a bathroom. The time for establishing climate-resilient consumer product standards is now.

 

California is not alone in considering ways to make infrastructure more resilient to climate change. Learn more about the risk mitigation strategies engineers are now implementing to make infrastructure design more sustainable and resilient.

Read the White Paper

by
Sameer Shah is a California-based environmental project manager for Burns & McDonnell. He has more than a decade of experience in environmental engineering, air quality permitting and compliance, remediation, and process optimization.