And it's more than just water. Experts choose what materials to make power lines out of based on how hot it has been before in a given location; if the lines get too hot, they could sag or short circuit. Asphalt cracks at high temperatures, but you can design asphalt mixtures to withstand extreme heats; those mixture decisions are made based on past weather data. Train tracks, airport runways, power plants, sewage systems— they are all designed with the past climate in mind.
We need to undergo an ideological shift in how we think about infrastructure and how it interacts with the environment.
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Engineers constantly have to make choices when designing infrastructure. If you are designing a road with a stormwater system—a pipe underneath the road that moves water away to prevent flooding—how big would you make the pipe? It would have to be a different size depending on whether you lived in San Diego, Minneapolis, or New York City.Engineers don’t just pick a random diameter that they think sounds good—the process is systematic, said Mikhail Chester, an associate professor of civil, environmental, and sustainable engineering at Arizona State University.“Often at the national level, there are engineering societies that will make recommendations that make their way into city codes,” Chester said. “And those say that when you design a stormwater pipe, it needs to be able to accommodate a 10-year-event, or something like that.”
Where do engineers get that probability? Weather stations have collected data on what happened in the past—rain, water flow, temperature—and we have records that go back 40 to 60 years. When trying to decide how big to design something, engineers will often go to the National Weather Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website. They plug in the location of the infrastructure they’re designing for, and see what the past has been like for that area. “This concept is everywhere in infrastructure,” Chester said.It's also linked intimately with stationarity. It's only useful to use past data if you assume that the future will be similar to the past. “How big should my reservoir be, for example,” said Boccaletti. “The idea was, if I build a reservoir that can hold water for long enough to ride through whatever droughts there have been in the past, then surely that will also be adequate for the future."But if the future is going to be different, then the past isn't so helpful. One paper on stationarity said designing infrastructure in this way was like “dancing on the tip of a needle."
If the future is going to be different, then the past isn't so helpful.
Another approach is called “minimizing future regret.” “It’s a totally different way of looking at problems,” Chester said. “I don’t know how bad it’s going to be. What I do know, is that in making decisions, I want to minimize regret about how I make those decisions. I essentially want to look at a number of scenarios of ways that I could adapt, and ask myself, 'If I’m totally off in those scenarios, how bad is that? How much cost did I waste, how much resources did I waste, and what were the social, political, and capital concerns in doing that?'”We need to build infrastructure that is safe to fail. Traditionally, infrastructure is designed to be fail-safe up to a certain point—those 10 or 100-year events. Anything over that, and severe consequences occur. At the moment we don’t design infrastructure with that failure in mind. Thinking about the consequences right at the beginning of the design process forces engineers and city planners to work to avoid them.
How do you plan for the future, when finally accepting that the future won’t look like the past?