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Climate Change And Heat Waves Have Brutal Effect On U.S. Cities' Infrastructure


Buckled roadways, melted electrical cables, public transit shutdowns - the extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest this past weekend was brutal for the region's infrastructure and the people who rely on it. Professor Vivek Shandas specializes in the effects of climate change on cities at Portland State University, and he joins us now. Hello.

VIVEK SHANDAS: Hello, Lulu. It's good to be here. Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is your takeaway from the way the heat has affected the infrastructure in your region?

SHANDAS: Yeah, so the heat has been really an unprecedented experience for everybody in the region. Infrastructure is one telltale sign that the way we've gone about designing our cities is not well prepared for some of these extreme events that are anticipated to grow in intensity, frequency and duration. So the infrastructure is just one indicator of multiple that we're actually starting to observe in terms of what we have been planning for and what we haven't been planning for.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, I imagine there are different standards for infrastructure across the country. So for a road running through Death Valley, that's going to be built to withstand more heat than one in, say, Oregon or Washington state. Is that also part of what's happening?

SHANDAS: Right. So there are a series of standards across the world, in fact. And in the United States, many of these standards are set based on historic norms. And so what Washington, D.C., would experience would be different than Death Valley. It would be different than Portland and Seattle. And so these standards are largely based on historical patterns of what we see as the normal high and low in terms of temperatures for most regions, as well as the normal rainfall and other climate factors that might play into account.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I guess, given climate change, cities are using outdated standards for what kind of heat, weather, flooding conditions they expect.

SHANDAS: Yes. So it kind of follows with that is that many of our design standards are set up with these historic norms, which then create some challenges when we're talking about the future of what we might experience in terms of higher temperatures, in terms of more volume of rain over a shorter period of time and more frequency of these events. So what is right now designed in terms of all the infrastructure across our cities are really ill equipped and often create potential hazards to the communities and businesses and other factors that play out in the city in terms of what we're actually going to be ready for in the coming years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're saying our cities are not prepared. I'm curious if politics impacts that. Do we see a difference in the way that perhaps Democratic-leaning places deal with climate change and the way that it may differ from the way that Republican-leaning places do?

SHANDAS: When a lot of the infrastructure was put in place in most of our U.S. cities, climate change wasn't a major factor or wasn't even on the minds of the engineers and the planners and designers that established all these massive amounts of sewer networks, the roadways, the bridges, et cetera. And what we're seeing now is when we're having to replace some of these and upgrade them for addressing climate change, that's where we get into the politics of it because when it comes to upgrading infrastructure, it's a massive expenditure. And so that's why we're talking about trillions of dollars. And so when it comes to the negotiations between Democrats and Republicans, that's where we run into some real sticking points about what is considered a viable or legitimate expenditure and what are the reasons for making that expenditure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, to your point, while it looks like we might have a new infrastructure bill, it's largely gutted of climate change provisions and funding by Republicans. So as someone who studies the impact of climate change on infrastructure, how worried are you about that?

SHANDAS: What we're really dealing with here is the coming together of a perfect storm. We're seeing these more intense heat waves. We're seeing more intense flooding, more intense rainfall, hurricanes and tornadoes that are increasing in intensity, frequency and duration. And that's coupled with a infrastructure system across the country that the American Society of Civil Engineers gives often a C, D or many cases an F grade, which means that the age and the deterioration that's occurred across the decades is at a critical point. And when we're not getting the funding from the federal agencies, which tend to have the deepest pockets for being able to do these big infrastructure projects, we're going to be running into some really challenging conditions about even getting to work and having roadways to get to work that aren't flooded or aren't buckling. And so these everyday experiences are going to become a bit harder and harder for communities to endure, in part because we're not seeing them kind of kept up with the changes in our environmental and climate conditions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Professor Vivek Shandas from Portland State University. Thank you very much.

SHANDAS: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.