Climate change will loom large in 2024 — here's what red states can do about it

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As extreme and irregular weather events slam communities across the country, the subject of our changing climate will likely be a divisive issue in the upcoming election. Given political sensitivities, is it possible that government officials in more conservative areas can make smart investments in infrastructure preparation without triggering sensitive political tripwires?

The answer: yes, they can — if the right planning and right strategy blueprint is put in place. Fortunately, new technologies can make that planning and visualization both easier and faster, giving all constituencies a chance to see what’s at stake. 

Whether one believes the outlier weather events of the past few years are a result of human-driven climate change, or that they’re a string of bad luck or observer bias, the spike in severe weather is wreaking havoc on our communities and our infrastructure. “Hundred-year” storms and floods statistically only have a 1 percent chance of occurring in a given year, but now they seem to be happening on a regular basis. And of course, there’s a chorus of scientists predicting that they’re simply the new normal now.

Either way, our infrastructure was not designed to withstand this sort of beating. 

Roads, bridges, and floodplains designed decades ago were built with lifespans based on data and engineering models that reflect a different reality than the one we appear to be living in today. And vulnerable populations will suffer the brunt of the consequences. Data show that when flooding does occur, it’s more likely to affect poorer and more vulnerable communities that haven’t received the same level of attention and protection as their wealthier counterparts.

That’s effect has been compounded across decades, as smaller flooding incidents and uninsured damage goes unreported. 

The result is that emergency preparedness and floodplain maps don’t appropriately reflect reality, making it harder to get a citizen response when you sound an alarm.

Rather than propose a massive flood mitigation infrastructure program as the preventative for whatever may come on the climate change side, government leaders may first want to consider more descriptive, vivid projections that can illustrate just how badly things can go wrong in a severe flooding event.

With modern technology, including advancements in AI and graphical simulation, it is possible to visualize likely flood events and the severe damage they can cause — which in turn, can begin to win over hearts and minds to consider preparing for these new worst-case scenarios.

FEMA’s flood maps are used by governments when designing key infrastructure elements, assessing vulnerabilities, and preparing communities for emergencies. But these maps are based on historical averages collected over years and years. As weather events become more extreme, the meteorological inputs on which government decisions are being made are rapidly becoming outdated.

In other words, the government has little insight into where non-riverine and coastal flooding will occur, and even less of an understanding of what sort of damage it will cause. FEMA itself has said so, as have reports by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. 

“It’s hard to predict when we’re going to see rain events like that,” FEMA head Deanne Criswell said in a 2022 interview, “and the status of infrastructure to be able to support that.” 

It’s an endless loop: governments don’t have a complete data picture, but keep building infrastructure in a way that serves the same outdated data models, sometimes forking over two hundred thousand plus dollars only to get back the same standard output of flood risk areas.  The data never gets better, and the infrastructure struggles. 

But in cases of extreme weather, it’s the flooding that’s outside of traditional models that causes the most damage. Flash flooding is the cause of countless human casualties, but its risk isn’t captured in FEMA’s data; flash floods are treated as anomalous. 

With AI-based technologies that can actually model and predict a variety of flooding eventualities, however, citizens and officials can get a more accurate risk assessment. Rather than make decisions entirely based on what’s happened previously, governments can use this technology to promote understanding of what could or will likely happen in this unprecedented era of extreme weather.

Data and mapping makes it easier for communities to adopt other preventative measures that can save lives. Florida, for example, which has stood in the face of hurricane after hurricane, regularly updates its building code to better protect citizens by requiring buildings to be constructed with the latest in wind-resistant materials. 

Venice, Italy, meanwhile, has been able to develop its own cutting-edge flood barriers to better protect its city — all because Venitians have an acute understanding of the behavior of flooding when it occurs. 

These communities regularly suffer the consequences of extreme weather, and as a result they have a better understanding of what to expect. But those that don’t can learn and illustrate more using AI. Cary, N.C., for example, is an inland city that wouldn’t otherwise scream flood risk, but leadership has adopted technology and flood sensors to better protect citizens.  

Politicians may debate the cause of climate change, but measures to protect citizens from extreme weather shouldn’t be controversial. AI technology can help to illustrate the risk communities face, and help leaders better prepare citizens. Leaders should take note. 

Jeff Albee is vice president and director of Digital Solutions at Stantec.

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