The Harsh Reality of Climate Resiliency

Power to the people - building climate resiliency.

The Harsh Reality of Climate Resiliency
Photo by Mika Baumeister / Unsplash

I don’t like the term “climate resiliency” because it feels like we’ve lost the war against climate change. It feels like it could be easily co-opted by corporations to excuse their bad environmental behavior. Yet, you and I have to face the harsh reality that we do need to become resilient against the coming floods, heat waves, and food shortages. All within the next few decades.

The first time I heard the term “resilience” was in the context of flooding in the NYC subways. I had just joined a new Engineering firm and our client, NYC Transit, was grappling with how to protect the subway system from flooding. They want to make the subways more resilient to stormwater getting on the tracks and taking out the power systems.

A high-intensity, short-duration storm in August of 2007 flooded portions of the subway system and knocked out service for millions of people. The firm I worked for was tasked to look for ways to prevent this from happening again.

The culprits that led to the flooding were bad curb reveal, an undersized and old stormwater system, and the proximity of subway ventilation grates to the roadway. These three things in conjunction with the high-intensity storm allowed stormwater to enter the subway system and overwhelm their pump systems.

We worked on the project and identified key locations that were vulnerable and fortified them. The project was a success because the lessons learned were applied to help limit the damage that Hurricane Sandy wrought a few short years later.

I was proud of the work we did for this project but it made me wonder about the criteria we used to design various structures. We design bridges, roads, and stormwater systems based on capacity or rainfall events. A municipal stormwater system with inlets and manholes might be designed to only handle the rainfall from a 10-year storm event, a storm with such intensity and volume that has a 10% chance of happening in a year.

Surprisingly, a lot of the infrastructure that’s built in this country is based on population growth for a local area or the probability of a rainfall event happening, and that paradigm is based on a climate that exists in a happy equilibrium. We know now that the climate equilibrium is not that steady anymore and it’s moving out of its stasis.

The question that worries me is this, how ready are we from an infrastructure viewpoint to handle deadly heatwaves, violent rainstorms, and dangerous weather? How resilient are we to keep life going while we work to blunt climate change’s impact on the world?

According to Wikipedia, climate resilience focuses on climate adaptation for us humans. It affects the development, infrastructure, agriculture, and water & sanitation for us humans (first) and the flora and fauna second. It’s framed to support the growing population and help us humans prepare and transition to a hotter world.

This is where I feel conflicted. One side of me is angry that we’re accepting the deleterious effects of climate change and the other side I’m happy that we’re preparing for it - albeit slower than I like.

Despite how I feel about it, climate resilience is a must for everyone. It’s a must for the communities we live in, our greater society, and the world.

We need to develop smarter places to live and retrofit the existing ones. We need to protect old-growth forests and set aside larger conservation areas - instead of encroaching on them. We need to do a lot and it feels overwhelming, but it’s not.

The old saying, “A journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step” rings true here. Every single reader can play a part in adjusting and preparing for future droughts, fires, and excessive weather. It could be small and simple like building a rain garden or trading a section of your lawn for natural wildflowers.

Gardening and composting is a great way to connect you with the earth and as a bonus, you get to eat the fruits of your labor.

Other ways we can all become more resilient is by changing our behaviors by bringing reusable shopping bags or trading plastic water bottles for refillable ones.

Or it could take the form of activism and boycotting companies that refuse to move to a more sustainable way of building products. Hell, you could seek out and join a local governing board or help elected officials write new policies that focus on sustainable and wise resource practices.

Whatever you choose to do, no matter how small or grand, the moral of the story is that we’re in this together. When we all come together with a common goal, we can move mountains.

The choice is ours. We can fight against the bad ideas and bad business practices that led us here in the first place. We have a chance, in the face of unprecedented environmental disasters, to remake our world into something sustainable and healthy.