Extreme Weather in the US: A persisting trend for the future

As extreme weather events become more common, infrastructure will have to adapt to the new normal in which an extreme event is simply the median.

The first six months of 2021 saw extreme weather events at either end of the continental United States (US). A devastating winter storm that struck Texas resulted in dozens of fatalities and the near-total collapse of the state’s power grid, which could not cope with increased demand and low temperatures. In the summer, record heat conditions affected the Mountain West states (namely Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico), with dozens of fatalities and heat so extreme it warped power pylons and buckled roads. Hot and cold temperature records set decades before were repeatedly surpassed from one day to the next along the Pacific Coast (California, Oregon and Washington). 

Climate change is not just a public health or economic issue, but one of national security and social cohesion. Communities starved of water are at odds with one another over-usage regulations. Buildings worn down by hurricanes and other storms are not all equal given their residents’ capacity to pay for repairs, or ability to relocate.  It is cheaper for developers to build new housing than to retrofit old ones, but this may mean displacement and ghettoization if not properly managed. Utility providers must cope with fraying equipment and debates over the cost of exploiting different energy sources.

Extreme weather events illustrate the urgent need to build new infrastructure that can cope with record-breaking temperatures and storms that occur with greater intensity and frequency. Congressional disputes over what constitutes infrastructure and how much to spend on different projects makes for slow going, however, and there is no universal recognition of the danger that climate change poses as of yet. The most vulnerable cities and states risk unevenly benefitting from financial assistance depending on the political will present in these locales to take action sooner rather than later.

Building and revitalizing infrastructure, however, need not be a money sink. Many measures, such as reducing water loss to evaporation and flood proofing metro stations, are relatively cheap compared to the economic losses that supply and service disruptions bring annually. Thousands of new jobs can be generated and consumer prices lowered significantly for utility costs and purchase of new vehicles in particular. (Hand in hand with a modernized, weather-resistant grid goes additional cybersecurity resources to combat ransomware attacks targeting critical infrastructure.) President Joe Biden has emphasized these areas in his pitch to voters and legislators, selling action to tackle climate change as a construction and investment boon that will reduce reliance on older, less energy efficient legacy systems. Both labour unions and chambers of commerce have come out in favor of his green jobs infrastructure bill, but whether Congress will pass the bill with its current US$2 trillion price tag remains to be seen. In the meantime, another severe fire season looms in the face of record drought conditions across the American West and hurricane season is in full swing on the East Coast.

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