That's not wild speculation. It's the official position of 13 federal agencies on climate change, released late last year with a warning: Local governments need to do more to prepare. Every road they build, every storm drain they put in, will have to hold up under conditions that modern civilization has never seen.Their solution: Don't try to guess what the future might bring; imagine an entire range of possible futures, and then look for solutions that work regardless of which one comes to pass.
“The assumption that current and future climate threats and impacts will resemble those of the past is no longer reliably true,” warned the National Climate Assessment released last year by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, on behalf of 13 federal agencies. The report is available online at globalchange.gov.
Climate change, it found, is already generating storms, heat waves, and droughts beyond the range of historical norms. “Failure to anticipate and adjust to these changes,” it said, “could be costly.”
A lead author of that part of the climate report, Robert Lempert, is a principal researcher, where he directs the Frederick S. Pardee Center for Longer Range Global Policy and the Future Human Condition.Steven Popper and Steven Bankes published a book called Shaping the Next One Hundred Years. In times of great uncertainty, they wrote, computers could help decisionmakers find their way by modeling where different paths would lead under thousands of possible scenarios.
“With the right tools and approaches, you can acknowledge uncertainty and say, 'Here is a set of actions we can take that makes sense no matter what future comes to pass.
“People often assume that uncertainty is debilitating, that decisionmakers can't act when they aren't sure about the future,” said Lempert, whose work on climate change earned him a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. “But with the right tools and approaches, you can acknowledge uncertainty and say, 'Here is a set of actions we can take that makes sense no matter what future comes to pass.'”
Local governments, though, struggling with big, expensive decisions in the face of climate change, need something more than computer models. They also need public buy-in. Lempert and other researchers developed a decisionmaking framework to help local governments think through climate change. Its purpose is to cut through the politics and get people talking about ideas and solutions, which can then be fed into the computers.
The framework allows communities to stress-test ideas and weigh the trade-offs, without requiring everyone to agree from the start on a single vision of the future. It gives them a way to think through low-regret changes they can make, and what it would take to pursue more transformative changes. It's a way through uncertainty on decisions involving many voices and different jurisdictions—a way forward for a place like the greater Pittsburgh region.
One side favored building huge concrete tunnels to trap and store stormwater, in addition to a planned expansion of the region's sewage treatment plant. The other wanted more focus on green solutions, like grassy catch basins or rain-permeable pavement. Neither side had looked up from the immediate problem to see what was on the horizon.
As the snow melts, higher water levels, pollution, and trash can be seen on the Allegheny River.
He and other researchers worked with local officials to organize a series of community meetings. They brought in engineers and technical experts, other local leaders and community groups.
A consensus began to emerge: People wanted solutions that would not just address the stormwater and sewage problems, but also provide other community benefits, be cost-effective in the long run, and avoid burdening ratepayers with further public debt.
Modeling Effective Solutions
They found that expanding the treatment plant would be the most effective solution under most scenarios. But the green infrastructure ideas were increasingly effective—and increasingly cost-effective—as the climate changed and the system had to handle more rain.
The computer models also revealed that the problem was already much worse than anyone had thought.
“It was quite clear that things have changed,When you build stuff in this industry, it's supposed to last a hundred year. Experts hope to make their framework a national norm for thinking through the uncertainties of climate change—a new standard for urban planning.
The framework is helping transportation planners pursue aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets while also enhancing mobility.
The researchers are now working to line up funding and partnerships that would allow them to help other urban areas plan for the future. They hope to make the framework a national norm for thinking through the uncertainties of climate change—a new standard for urban planning.
“This is a complex problem, but we didn't want to just keep standing up and saying it's a complex problem,” said Debra Knopman, a principal researcher at and expert on infrastructure planning, who helped lead the development of the framework. The question facing local governments now, she said, is, “Can you still see a path forward that will do well under a wide range of possible future conditions, and not run you off the side of the road into a ditch?”
That ditch, after all, probably spent a good part of 2018 collecting water. More than two dozen U.S. cities received more rain this past year than they ever had before. With nearly 20 inches more than its historical average, Pittsburgh was one of them.