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GUEST COMMENTARY: Saving Midwest infrastructure from climate change

GUEST COMMENTARY: Saving Midwest infrastructure from climate change

The increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters that have recently come to Texas, Florida, the Gulf Coast, California, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are a harsh reminder our climate is changing.

But these changes are not limited to far-off coastal communities and tropical islands.

In the Midwest, average temperatures are 4.5 degrees higher than they were in the 1980s. Annual “heavy precipitation days” are up 27 percent since the 1950s.

Great Lakes ice coverage is down, and electricity outages and demand for cooling systems are up. Projections expect temperatures to rise and heavy precipitation seasons to get even more severe for the balance of this century.

Each of these changes carries a very real risk — both in terms of direct infrastructure costs and impact on our $2.6 trillion regional economy.

Higher temperatures reduce the lifespan of roads and bridges, can cause railways to buckle and affect aircraft performance. As we’ve seen just in the past few weeks, flooding and more extreme storms can have damaging impacts far beyond the destruction of individual homes and businesses — disrupting freight and commuter routes and threatening above-ground energy transmission capabilities. This latter point is a special risk for the economy of the Midwest, which features mostly above ground transmission lines.

During this especially intense storm season, lawmakers in Washington and state capitals across our region have been discussing ways to maintain, expand or modernize the infrastructure systems at the heart of our economy. Ultimately, their proposals will entail a significant expenditure of public dollars.

But just as taxpayers wouldn’t want us using outdated technology for today’s infrastructure, we shouldn’t be creating facilities according to outdated heat and rainfall trends. To ensure taxpayers get the best bang for the buck, we need policy makers and project planners to incorporate today’s climate realities.

As we look at new projects, we need to be assessing what we already have in order to address climate-related vulnerabilities. As our friends in New Orleans and Houston can no doubt attest, it is a heck of a lot cheaper to mitigate against potential weather events than to repair or rebuild.

On this score, it is encouraging to see several states are implementing infrastructure asset management programs, including Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota. To protect the investments taxpayers already made, more states should follow.

We also need thoughtful, evidence-based discussion about how human activity is contributing to our changing climate.

States including Minnesota and Michigan are leading our region in establishing climate action plans that include greenhouse gas emission targets. Sadly, these states are outliers.

The Trump administration has retreated from international agreements designed to operationalize global consensus on these issues, and just this week, directed the EPA to roll back emissions targets for power plants.

Too often, we have allowed debates over climate change to devolve into a false choice regarding who is to blame and scientifically dubious rationalizations about how we got here.

Instead, we should be talking about the climate realities as they exist today and how we can protect tens of billions of dollars of infrastructure investments and trillions of dollars in economic activity and property.

Mary Craighead, of Munster, is a transportation policy analyst for Midwest Economic Policy Institute. The opinions are the writer's.


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