Forward Thinking: A Road Map to Resilience

The following was published Feb. 1, 2018 on the Urban Institute’s “Using Dollars with Sense: Ideas for Better Infrastructure Choices” page.

The economic imperative of investing in our nation’s infrastructure is widely recognized. But often overlooked is the opportunity such investments create to increase the climate resilience of the nation’s communities and businesses. Climate resilience is the ability to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to extreme weather events or climate trends. Improving climate resilience means assessing how climate change will create new or alter current climate-related risks and taking steps to address those risks.

Many parts of the US need no reminder of why we must build better and smarter than we used to. From hurricanes in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico to California’s wildfires,1 a record-setting 16 different billion-dollar weather and climate disasters cost the US a record-breaking $306 billion last year.2 Those disasters resulted in property and infrastructure damage that will take time to rebuild.

Investing in resilience before disasters occur is especially critical for long-lived infrastructure because the climate in 2050 and beyond will look different than it does today. Weather events have become more extreme, and all indications are that this trend will grow through at least the end of this century. A warmer, wetter atmosphere is expected to make rainfall more intense, and extreme precipitation events could be two to three times more common by 2100 if global greenhouse gas emissions go unchecked (USGCRP 2017). Also, freeze-thaw cycles can increase during warmer winters, summer temperatures will be hotter, and sea levels will rise and potentially inundate coastal infrastructure. Each of these impacts will damage and degrade infrastructure if we do not build it to withstand future climate conditions.

How does resilience investment benefit Americans?

  • Fiscal benefits. Resilience investment pays for itself many times over through avoided damages over an infrastructure project’s life. Also, cities and states deploying resilient infrastructure may be able to access cheaper financing as credit agencies begin to account for climate change in their methodologies.3
  • Environmental benefits. Many resilience strategies reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve water quality, and provide other environmental and public health benefits.
  • Economic benefits. Resilient infrastructure can withstand climate and weather events and prevent the economic interruptions and business losses that follow extensive infrastructure damage.

How can decisionmakers select projects and prioritize investments to reap these added benefits of resilient infrastructure? Some helpful criteria follow below.4

Use Up-to-Date Climate Projections

Using the best available data on climate risks better informs project stages from design to maintenance. The frequency and intensity of precipitation, heat, storms, and other climate change impacts could increase over the long lifetimes of most infrastructure projects. Future climate conditions affect various design decisions: materials must be able to withstand certain temperature ranges, stormwater management features must absorb a given level of rainfall, and design flood elevations must be selected according to specific heights of floodwaters. Understanding and adapting to these changes from the outset lets planners incorporate resilience strategies.

Use Best Practices When Climate Projections Are Unavailable

When data or budgetary constraints prevent the use of localized climate projections, projects should still take precautions in mapping risk. An example comes from floodplain mapping. Public and private infrastructure are commonly built outside the 100-year floodplain. If projects must be built in the floodplain, flood risk reduction strategies are employed. Federal policy has provided incentives for this risk management primarily through the National Flood Insurance Program. But floodplain maps are constructed using historical values, so they likely underestimate the extent of the future 100-year floodplain and the depth of floods from different precipitation events. To account for this, infrastructure projects could be built above 500-year flood levels (as opposed to 100-year levels), or they could be elevated two to three feet above the 100-year flood level. Federal agencies were ordered in 2015 to follow those design guidelines in a Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS), but that directive was revoked in August 2017. Several states and local jurisdictions are already implementing similar guidelines, but infrastructure legislation should include new guidelines that replace the FFRMS and manage risk in infrastructure projects.

Be Transparent about Data and Decisions about Climate Risk

Methods to assess vulnerability and to make decisions about design, construction, and maintenance should be made publicly available, including the climate data and how it informed decisions. Such data and decisionmaking considerations can be valuable assets, informing the public of the conditions federally funded infrastructure was designed for, the climate scenarios in which that infrastructure will function, and how the new or repaired structure may contribute to local resilience efforts. For example, if a coastal highway is elevated to withstand two feet of sea-level rise, public and private entities using that highway can design their own emergency response and resilience strategies with that scenario in mind.

Additionally, increasing the availability of climate data can assist the public and private entities undertaking their own climate resilience planning and promote collaboration among different actors (Lawson, Maher, and Peace 2017). This is especially true when federal sources develop and share downscaled climate model projections.

Prioritize Flexible and Adaptable Projects

Future climate conditions are inherently uncertain because they depend upon future emissions of greenhouse gases, and those emissions depend upon global policies and economic factors that are constantly in flux. To avoid over- or underinvesting in resilience, it is important to prioritize infrastructure projects and designs that are flexible and adaptable to future climate conditions.

Increasingly intense and frequent climate change impacts also demonstrate why infrastructure should be constructed and maintained with the expectation of increasingly extreme weather events. In addition to the improved ability to recover, infrastructure upgrades and construction should prioritize adaptability to changing conditions, such as longer frost-free seasons or increased intensity of precipitation.

Plan for Resilient Operations, Maintenance, and Repair

Many climate vulnerabilities are exacerbated by neglected infrastructure maintenance. A federal infrastructure bill provides an opportunity to fund repairs and upgrades for existing systems while considering climate impacts in those activities. New construction specified in the bill should make allowances for funding long-term operation and maintenance. There will be few resiliency benefits if new project construction does not prioritize maintenance measures to ensure projects remain in good repair and functional for decades.

Ensure Equal Access to Infrastructure Benefits

Investing in infrastructure that serves populations whose climate vulnerabilities are exacerbated by societal inequalities can be especially impactful. Resilient infrastructure is designed and constructed with consideration of vulnerable populations, such as senior citizens, children, people with disabilities, low-income households, and people with limited access to cars or public transportation. In extreme events, vulnerable populations have been disproportionately affected. People ages 65 and older accounted for nearly half the deaths in Superstorm Sandy,5 while Hurricane Harvey affected low-income neighborhoods more because these families lived in flood-prone areas of Houston.6 Considering these vulnerabilities in highway and water projects can save lives. Mass transit projects can also better connect elderly, low-income, or otherwise socially isolated people to job opportunities, schools, and their community.

Choosing decentralized infrastructure projects multiplies the local impact of infrastructure investments by providing long-term local jobs. Green infrastructure projects to expand water infrastructure capacity, for example, require long-term maintenance that relies on general skills rather than specialized education. At the same time, these types of projects can reduce local pollution and urban heat islands, producing public health benefits as well.

Respect Environmental Laws and Regulations

Federal and state laws and regulations protect the nation’s water quality, air quality, and endangered species. While the need for infrastructure investment is critical, these environmental considerations should not be abandoned. Opportunities to streamline existing permitting processes can and should be explored, but robust environmental review is necessary to identify existing vulnerabilities or changing conditions that could threaten infrastructure.

How Do We Get There?

Resilience does not require any new government programs or major changes in how federal investment works. We already have most of the tools in place, but we need to ensure they are used thoughtfully and consistently. The easiest way to achieve that is for Congress to codify resilience criteria, providing federal agencies clear and long-lasting guidance to allocate funds and approve projects. Another key principle is to “think outside the roads” on infrastructure. Yes, the economy needs roads that are in good repair and protected from climate change impacts. But a truly resilient economy also needs a robust network of alternative transportation systems, advanced internet and telecommunications, and diverse and clean electricity sources—all built in a way that maximizes environmental benefits.

Cities, states, and businesses have developed best practices for resilient infrastructure, and they have valuable lessons that can inform federal decisions. Congress should explore these lessons and make sure federal dollars are spent in a way that supports a prosperous, resilient economy now and in the future.


  1. Extreme Weather and Climate Change,” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, accessed January 26, 2018.
  2. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters: Overview,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Centers for Environmental Information, accessed January 26, 2018.
  3. Christopher Flavelle, “Moody’s Warns Cities to Address Climate Risks or Face Downgrades,” Bloomberg, November 29, 2017.
  4. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions has developed criteria for resilient infrastructure. See C2ES (2018).
  5. Mapping Hurricane Sandy’s Death Toll,” New York Times, November 17, 2012.
  6. Eleanor Krause and Richard V. Reeves, “Hurricanes Hit the Poor the Hardest,” Brookings Institution, September 18, 2017.


C2ES (Center for Climate and Energy Solutions). 2018. “Policy Options for Climate-Resilient Infrastructure.” Arlington, VA: C2ES.

Lawson, Ashley, Katy Maher, and Janet Peace. 2017. Guide to Public-Private Collaboration on City Climate Resilience Planning. Arlington, VA: C2ES.

USGCRP (US Global Change Research Program). 2017. “Precipitation Change in the United States.” In Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, volume 1, edited by David J. Dokken, David W. Fahey, Kathy A. Hibbard, Thomas K. Maycock, Brooke C. Stewart, and Donald J. Wuebbles, 207–30. Washington, DC: USGCRP.