Adapting Infrastructure to Climate Change: Advancing decision-making under conditions of uncertainty

Routledge author, Todd Schenk discusses his new book, Adapting Infrastructure to Climate Change: Advancing decision-making under conditions of uncertainty and complexity  and looks at how agencies engaged in infrastructure planning and decision-making might proceed.
(Adapting Infrastructure to Climate Change is due to publish next year)

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Adapting Infrastructure to Climate Change: Advancing decision-making under conditions of uncertainty and complexity

Todd Schenk [1] - November 15, 2015

There was more bad news out of Greenland this past week – the Zachariae glacier is quickly retreating into the sea, which could single-handedly raise sea levels by half a meter.[2] This glacier is one of many, glacial melt is only one factor contributing to sea level rise, and sea level rise is only one of many factors that will have profound impacts on our natural and built environments in the coming decades. Regardless of the outcomes of COP 21 in Paris, it is increasingly clear that we are going to have to deal with a climate that is rapidly changing. However, the pace and ways in which it is changing are often unclear and dynamic.

Our infrastructure systems are particularly vulnerable to climate change, yet difficult to adapt. Large infrastructure projects, like bridges and dams, are typically built with expected lifetimes of decades; design standards are based on historical climate conditions; retrofitting later is often expensive and challenging; resources are scarce and the tradeoffs of overbuilding significant; and the complex norms and standards for planning, design and management are slow to change. This puts infrastructure managers and other stakeholders in a challenging position as they attempt to make decisions today around investments that are expected to perform well over the highly uncertain long-term.

The research undergirding this forthcoming book engaged stakeholders in three coastal cities – Singapore, Rotterdam and Boston – to consider how they might make infrastructure investment decisions in the face of uncertainty, while acknowledging other limiting factors. Participants were brought together to participate in a role-play simulation exercise. This ‘serious game’ exposed them to a hypothetical transportation infrastructure scenario, a range of potential options for moving forward, various interests vis-à-vis these options, a multi-stakeholder approach to deliberating around these kinds of complex decisions, and scenarios as a way of framing uncertainty.

A key finding is that uncertainty is a pervasive factor in infrastructure planning, particularly when adapting to climate change is added as a variable. However, uncertainty is as much a governance challenge as it is a technical or scientific issue. Current institutional arrangements are ill equipped for integrating dynamic and uncertain climate futures. Participants in this research came to the conclusion that flexibility is an appropriate way to proceed in the face of uncertainty and change, but acknowledged that it is very difficult to adopt more flexible and adaptive approaches in practice – infrastructure projects are typically treated as one-off investments, and governance arrangements reflect this. How flexibility is best injected into infrastructure planning and decision-making and who should be responsible for it is unclear.

Participants in this research universally praised the use of multiple scenarios as a way of framing uncertainty. However, they made decision-making in the exercise difficult – participants reverted back to a single model of the future to arrive at a decision, or found persistent uncertainty paralyzing. They later reflected that scenarios can and should play an integral role in long-term planning, but that individual decisions often require the admittedly contingent use of single variables or models. It is in highlighting the contingent nature of the data being used that scenarios are most useful. Unfortunately, honesty about how provisional the data is is often lost in decision-making. This suggests that we need to close the loop from long-range planning to project-level decision-making.

What is clear is that we need new institutional arrangements that are capable of engaging in adaptive planning and decision-making as conditions change and we continue to learn. An important component of building these institutions is bringing stakeholders together to do collaborative boundary work. This work might involve scenario planning, collaborative model building, joint fact finding, and the establishment of institutions for collaborative adaptive management. It will require robust processes and strong commitments from those involved. This book will suggest how agencies engaged in infrastructure planning and decision-making might proceed. The task is daunting, but necessary if managers and other stakeholders are to succeed in maintaining our critical infrastructure systems in what is shaping up to be a tumultuous future.


[1] Todd Schenk is an Assistant Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. He can be reached at tschenk@vt.edu.

[2] See: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2015/11/11/science.aac7111