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16 July 2021

The case for 'bounce-forward,' climate-resilient infrastructure

Carson Smith

The concept of resilience has been at the forefront of global discussions in recent years. The 100 Resilient Cities program (now the Resilient Cities Network) was launched in 2013; the Urban Land Institute hosted their second annual Resilience Summit in 2020; and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions has a ‘Climate Resilience Portal.’ The idea has become even more prominent in ongoing conversations about COVID-19, and for good reason: to be “resilient” implies stability and adaptability in the event of unforeseen circumstances, such as erratic weather events or even a global pandemic.

When developing climate change resilience plans for the built environment, there are two strategies to consider: taking a “bounce-back” or “bounce-forward” approach. A “bounce-back” approach implies a return to a previous steady state. A “bounce-forward” approach accounts for continuous adaptation to disturbances or changes to the steady state.

Because climate change is constantly shifting the overall environmental equilibrium, “bounce-back” approaches are becoming less and less applicable in practice. However, the majority of resilience efforts within the U.S. building sector employ a “bounce-back” approach, one that does not address adapting to anticipated future changes.

A helpful illustration of a “bounce-back” resilience approach can be found in the state of Texas. Due to its proximity to the Gulf Coast, the state of Texas hosts several hurricanes and tropical storms in the warm weather months of hurricane season each year. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey caused a $3.8 billion loss in gross state product (GSP) – more than two times the total GSP of 2016 – and racked up $125 billion in total damages. These types of severe weather events are not new to state of Texas, nor to its leadership. Texas ranks second as the most hurricane prone state in the U.S. Despite the clear evidence for the need for thoughtful and effective climate resilience in the built environment, statewide political interest and funding remains elsewhere.

Flash-forward to February 2021: an unprecedented, week-long freeze effectively brought the state of Texas offline. The ice storm once again highlighted shortcomings in disaster preparedness – primarily the lack of resilient infrastructure, such as weatherized power plants/systems and other effects of Texas’s deregulated electric grid. The storm resulted in widespread outages that left millions without power, heat, and water for several days. The total damages from crop loss, power outages, water disruption, and burst pipes are estimated to be as high as $130 billion statewide, in addition to the toll of the devastating number of lives lost.

It has been nearly four years since Hurricane Harvey, with no significant legislative efforts to strengthen climate resilience in Texas, and little has changed since the ice storms in February; in fact, in the last two weeks, Texans have been warned of the potential for rolling power outages throughout the summer as temperatures soar and electric demand increases. To avoid complete infrastructural failure, it is imperative that the state of Texas, among other state bodies—incorporates climate resilience into policy-making and budget allocation.

Our Climate Resilience team at Longevity Partners believes resilience cannot be reactive. Though we cannot predict the weather, we can learn from past missteps and rely on experts to future-proof our assets and communities through resilient planning and construction.