Dept of Energy and Gov't Watchdog: Climate Change Serious Threat to America's Basic Infrastructure

Two new Government reports released this week present deeply troubling findings about how extreme weather and climate change threaten the core infrastructure that we rely on for basic services like our phones, water, health care, and electricity.

The first report, from the Department of Energy (DOE), is notable because it A) details how America’s aging interconnected web of infrastructure—our power grid, communications, health, water and transportation systems—are all under greater threat from climate change, B) details economic, social, and environmental threats as supply chains are disrupted, economic activities are suspended, and/or social well-being is threatened by climate change. The study says that there is ominous little money to strengthen these systems, but that climate preparedness measures can help soften impacts.

The second study, by the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—our federal watchdog agency—finds that almost all elements of the US energy infrastructure are increasingly vulnerable to climate change impacts. That means increased risk of power outages and fuel shortages and thus to our daily lives, our safety, and ability to do business.

The DOE report, Climate Change and Infrastructure Urban Systems, and Vulnerabilities, is significant because it’s essentially part of our larger National Climate Assessment (NCA) and represents the first time the NCA will include a section on the risks to infrastructure and societal investments: our ability to travel, access health care, talk on the phone, or use computers. The full National Climate Assessment—the federally-mandated gold standard for climate related topics--will be released next month.

“Cross-sectoral issues related to infrastructures and urban systems have not received a great deal of attention to date in research literatures in general and climate change assessments in particular,” the authors say.

They point out that risks are greatest in urban areas where systems are already stressed by age, demand levels beyond what they were designed to deliver, and where populations and economic activities are concentrated. Climate and related infrastructure impacts will be “especially problematic” in urban areas as children, the sick/those with existing medical conditions, the elderly, and low income communities are “vulnerable because of limited coping capacities.”

As an example of the cascading, domino-effect impacts on infrastructure, the DOE report cites a 2011 heat wave that knocked out a power line in Arizona, which then caused 20 power failures in 11 minutes, impacting millions of people in Arizona, California and Mexico, shutting down the San Onofre nuclear power plant in California, causing the release of seven million gallons raw sewage in the San Diego area, and forcing residents to boil their drinking water. “The Great Blackout of 2011” ultimately lasted 12 hours, impacted people from Southern California to Western Arizona and all the way down Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Needless to say, the power outage disrupted myriad other services.

But the DOE report also focuses on solutions/steps we can take to lessen the impending impacts of climate change. The study says risks can be “substantially reduced” by such climate preparedness measures as strengthening building standards, expanding green infrastructure that can contain floodwater, and reducing stormwater runoff by expanding impervious surfaces. The authors note that the knowledge (and examples needed) to implement these changes already exists, but that “transformational changes” may ultimately be needed.

NRDC has done a lot of work on the above mentioned solutions: building codes and standards, green infrastructure, impervious pavement, and reducing storm water runoff.

According to the authors:

The challenge is to recognize that, although uncertainties about climate change and payoffs from specific response strategies are considerable, many actions make sense now, such as developing monitoring systems to support assessments of emerging threats to infrastructures and urban systems.


Now to the Government Accountability Office report, officially titled Climate Change: Energy Infrastructure Risks, and Adaptation Efforts.

The GAO study found that “U.S. energy infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to a range of climate change impacts--particularly infrastructure in areas prone to severe weather and water shortages,” and that these “changes are projected to affect infrastructure throughout all major stages of the energy supply chain, thereby increasing the risk of disruptions.”

 For example:

  • Electricity generation infrastructure, such as power plants, is vulnerable to severe weather or water shortages, which can interrupt operations.
  • Electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure, including power lines and substations, is susceptible to severe weather and may be stressed by rising demand for electricity as temperatures rise.
  • Resource extraction and processing infrastructure, including oil and natural gas platforms, refineries, and processing plants, is often located near the coast, making it vulnerable to severe weather and sea level rise. 
  • Fuel transportation and storage infrastructure, including pipelines, barges, railways and storage tanks, is susceptible to damage from severe weather, melting permafrost, and increased precipitation.  


The GAO also notes that these impacts “have been large and are increasing,” and may be amplified by “broad, systemic factors, including water scarcity, energy system interdependencies, increased electricity demand, and the compounding effects of multiple climate impacts.”

While the bulk of responsibility for adapting falls on the private sector, the report concludes, "the federal government is just beginning to engage in more coordinated, multiagency efforts to better understand how climate change might impact federal facilities and their mission goals that intersect with the energy industry."

President Obama this past June announced his comprehensive climate action plan, which among other preparedness measures, created an adaptation task force. Perhaps most importantly, the President’s plan directs the Environmental Protection Agency to create climate pollution standards for the single largest source of US climate pollution: existing power plants. The President has also ordered other preparedness measures.  Yet a lot more can and needs to be done. For example, state’s currently aren’t required to factor climate risks into the plans they submit to the federal government to be eligible for disaster prevention and relief funding. And new flood maps being issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) don’t factor in climate change.

The bottom line is more can be done, and needs to be done. These new reports make that clear.