By Michelle Wyman, Executive Director, The National Council for Science and the Environment
It can be easy to focus on how much it would cost to create a more sustainable infrastructure – building, financing, or developing technology – but what is often ignored are the accelerated costs if we don’t make these investments.
In just the last three months, 2017 has become the most expensive year for U.S. natural disasters on record. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released data on Monday showing “the U.S. endured 16 separate weather and climate disasters with losses that each exceeded $1 billion last year, with total costs of about $306 billion, [breaking] the previous record” by $91 billion.
NOAA climatologist Adam Smith stated, “It was also the most expensive hurricane season on record at $265 billion and the costliest wildfire season on record at $18 billion.”
The report showed “Hurricane Harvey racked up total damage costs of $125 billion, second only to Hurricane Katrina in the 38-year period of record keeping for billion-dollar disasters. Hurricanes Maria and Irma totaled $90 billion and $50 billion in damage, respectively, [and are now the third and fifth-costliest weather and climate disasters on U.S. record.]” 
It’s important to consider what our roles as scientists, academics, and innovators could be in minimizing or preventing the economic and social costs of these events. While the “up-front costs can be fully offset by efficiency gains and fuel savings over the infrastructure lifecycle,” imagine also the avoided costs – human, environmental, and financial – and the long term returns of investing now in resilient, sustainable infrastructure.
With the total of last year’s disaster costing “nearly the same as Denmark’s gross domestic product, which the World Bank tallied at $306.9 billion in 2016,” we cannot simply react to disasters anymore, but embrace a world proactively built to mitigate and withstand the changes in our climate.
With infrastructure being entirely informed by scientific data and analysis, NCSE has a unique opportunity to lead and shape efforts across the country. Health and medical providers, universities, urban and rural planners, energy experts, business and financial partners, entrepreneurs and investors, sociologists, behaviorists, and psychologists could have a tremendous impact helping these regions rebuild. Yet without the assurances of evidence-based research to guide the design, creation, and impact of new infrastructure, there is little hope for a sustainable future anywhere.
NCSE has an opportunity to lead and shape efforts across the country. Health and medical providers, universities, urban and rural planners, energy experts, business and financial partners, entrepreneurs and investors, sociologists, behaviorists, and psychologists could have a tremendous impact helping these regions rebuild in thoughtful, sustainable ways.
From a broader climate perspective, “the U.S. sweltered through its [third]-warmest year on record. For the third consecutive year, every state across the contiguous U.S. and Alaska was warmer than average.” Climate change is “playing an increasing role in the increasing frequency of some types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters.” Smith said.
This past Sunday, on CNN’s Global Public Square, Fareed Zakaria discussed the relationship between global warming and the frigid temperatures we’ve been experiencing all along the East Coast in the past weeks:
“Studies show this is not random, but caused by global warming – as it is pushing the polar vortex on us more often and for longer durations than it used to.”
Zakaria also cited MIT climatologist Judah Cohen, who also believes that episodes like this will continue and become more frequent in the future.
In a Fortune opinion piece last week, Luis Ballesteros, an assistant professor at George Washington University, sees the increased probability of an economic crisis stemming from Bomb Cyclone Grayson:
“The first days of 2018 brought the first snowfall to Louisiana’s Gulf Coast and areas of Florida in 30 years. Southern local governments have little experience with this kind of emergency preparedness and many lack essential resources for recovery. In addition, most homes lack heating systems and public infrastructure is highly vulnerable to freezing conditions. The underprepared or inefficient management of extreme weather conditions is associated with a mortality rate of 40% among local businesses in the immediate aftermath, and 70% within two years. This derives from behavioral factors and [underdeveloped] formal risk-management strategies for handling winter storms.”
Even in more prepared regions of the U.S., “the storm froze pipes and disrupted services at refineries, increasing fuel prices as heavy snowfall and high winds caused electrical outages for nearly 80,000 homes and businesses… The only nuclear plant in Massachusetts was shut down due to blizzard conditions after the failure of a line that connects the reactor to the power grid.”
These insights highlight the need for greater collaboration from all industries and disciplines across the NCSE community. We have the opportunity to lead efforts to plan, build, support, govern, research, and educate better – and find strength and security by integrating solutions to increase resilience and sustainability, while decreasing adverse effects on natural and social infrastructure.
In 2016, The New Climate Economy Report from The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate found a global investment of nearly $90 trillion is needed over the next 15 years, and shows the importance of NCSE’s focus on sustainable infrastructure:
“This new infrastructure offers a great opportunity to “leapfrog” the inefficient, sprawling and polluting systems of the past. Transformative change is needed now… [and] the window for making the right choices is uncomfortably narrow because of…a shrinking carbon budget. The next 2-3 years will be crucial in bringing about a fundamental change of direction.
Infrastructure underpins core economic activity… Investing in sustainable infrastructure can boost growth and global demand in the short term, a priority for today’s economic and financial decision-makers. Over the medium term, it can spur innovation, creativity and efficiency of energy, mobility and logistics. It can help to lay the foundation for sustainable industrialization. And it underpins the only sustainable, long-term growth path on offer, bringing with it a means to increase living standards, promote inclusion and reduce poverty. While the challenges and opportunities vary in different parts of the world, investing in sustainable infrastructure is in the collective global interest.”
For the National Council for Science and the Environment, our part in this collaborative and urgent undertaking begins in just two short weeks at NCSE 2018 National Conference and Global Forum on Science, Policy, and the Environment.
If you have yet to register, please do now. And if can’t attend, please engage with NCSE and the community of scientists, researchers, educators, and policymakers we serve to ensure that you are part of the discussion and this important work.
 Fareed Zakaria GPS, CNN, January 7, 2018