The impacts of climate change are already visible. Seven of the ten costliest hurricanes (adjusted for inflation) occurred in the past ten years (2004-2014). The number of federal disaster declarations hit 99 in 2011, shattering the 2010 figure of 81, which itself was substantially above the yearly average of 35 since 1953. There have been 171 natural disasters in the United States from 1980-2011.

Extreme weather events are increasing the number of businesses and homes that are considered uninsurable in the private market, which in many cases leaves government – and, therefore, American taxpayers – liable for the costs and the risks as the “insurer of last recourse.” According to the Insurance Information Institute, the total hurricane-related risk insured by the government has increased 15-fold since 1990 to $885 billion. Incorporating measures that make communities and infrastructure more resilient and disaster resistant will help decrease their vulnerability and provide long-term savings for taxpayers, households and insurers.

One response to these increasing incidents of devastating extreme weather is climate change adaptation (aka resilience or resiliency). A risk-management strategy characterized by adjustments to natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climate change, climate adaptation efforts can vary widely based on the needs of a region, but they commonly include better climate information and decision-making tools, new building and infrastructure standards, and infrastructure modifications that improve resiliency to storm water or extreme temperatures.

By improving the climate resiliency of infrastructure, governments can reduce long-term costs and limit disruptions: resilient infrastructure will leave us more prepared not just for the next storm, but for the many storms to follow. Local officials currently have much of the relevant experience needed to prepare for climate change impacts through their experience in hazard mitigation, emergency response, flood management, and land use planning – and many adaptation efforts are already ongoing at the state and local level. However, officials and planners need better tools and methodologies in order to integrate climate and weather information into asset management and economic development decisions. Such tools include updated flood maps that account for various climate change scenarios and broader technical assistance from climate experts. Action at the federal level can serve to provide guidelines and resources to states and cities, promote collaboration, and improve financing availability.

Key resiliency strategies include:

  • Minimum standards for building codes
  • Risk-based pricing of insurance
  • The use of nature to mitigate damage and protect lives and property
  • Additional funding for weather satellites and remote sensing so local officials can be as informed of conditions as possible
  • Increased climate change and extreme weather research
  • Promotion of sound land use and management practices
  • Linking federal recovery assistance to climate resiliency planning and investment

 

Building Codes

A building or home that meets the most current code will withstand the forces of nature better than homes built to older codes. Storm and earthquake damage is extremely expensive and, to a large extent, avoidable through cost-effective enhancements at the time of construction and careful construction practices. A study done for the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) found that losses from Hurricane Andrew, which caused more than $20 billion in insured damage, would have been reduced by 50 percent for residential properties and by 40 percent for commercial properties if they were built in accordance with Florida’s 2004 statewide building code.

Another IBHS study following Hurricane Charley in 2004 found that conformance to current building codes reduced the severity of losses by 42 percent and loss frequency by 60 percent. A 2005 study funded by FEMA and conducted by the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Multihazard Mitigation Council found that every dollar spent on mitigation would save four dollars in losses. This makes the insurance industry a major advocate for stronger codes. They realize the increasing intensity and frequency of weather events caused by our changing climate is a threat to their business model if structures of all kinds are not built more resiliently. From the homeowner’s point of view, increased resilience increases the chances of a home being insurable at a reasonable price.

It is much more expensive to rebuild homes than to build them right in the first place. Researchers at Louisiana State University found that if stronger building codes had been in place, wind damages from Hurricane Katrina would have been reduced by a whopping 80 percent. A 2012 Milliman study found the Safe Building Code Incentive Act of 2011 (H.R. 2069) would have saved the federal government an average of nearly $500 million a year in hurricane relief payments if it had been enacted in 1988.

Read more about building codes in regards to energy efficiency.

 

Investments in Infrastructure

In a changing climate with more frequent and intense storms, rebuilding our infrastructure systems to be stronger is critical. Systems will otherwise risk falling into a costly cycle of perpetual repair as 100-year storms hit again and again. Improvements to infrastructure resiliency, whether they are called risk management strategies, extreme weather preparedness or climate change adaptation, can help a region bounce back quickly from the next storm at considerably less cost.

The next extreme weather event is not typically on the minds of those seeking to quickly rebuild with limited resources. But a system that is returned to pre-storm normalcy will be no better prepared for the next storm. Climate change is leading to more destructive storms, and rising sea levels will put coastal areas at unprecedented risk to storm surge. Infrastructure, like everything else, must adapt. Improving infrastructure’s resiliency to climate change and extreme weather costs is an upfront investment, one that pays off by reducing direct and indirect costs after future storms.

In addition to hardening roads, bridges, mass transit networks, electricity grids, and other infrastructure to withstand extreme weather, the use of distributed energy technologies and systems can help make communities more resilient. Many forms of renewable energy (such as solar power), but also district energy systems and microgrids (which both provide energy efficiency benefits) and effective energy storage, all help to make electricity supply less vulnerable to extreme weather disruptions.