"Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is that no instruction book came with it."
— R. Buckminster Fuller
What happens when critical infrastructure meets climate change?
That depends on four factors: planning, preparation, implementation and, to some extent, luck. Theoretically, if we do a good job on the first three factors, we will reduce our chances of being the victims of bad luck.
Unfortunately, we’ve been bringing a lot of bad luck — or perhaps we should call it Mother Nature’s revenge — on ourselves by failing to plan and prepare for climate-related catastrophes. Our preparations for major hurricanes, serial tornado strikes in the Midwest, repetitive wildfires in the West and flooding everywhere have been anemic at best. Usually, we wait for disaster to strike, then offer a belated, muddled and inadequate response.
While such policies were questionably acceptable in the bygone pre-climate-crisis era, when “natural disasters” were relatively few and far between, they are proving to be totally unworkable in today’s “new normal.”
If we’re going to cope with climate change, the first thing we have to do is get it through our heads that it is upon us and we must expect the expectable: There WILL BE more frequent and destructive natural events of every kind because nature’s processes, as we’ve known them, have been upended.
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We must quickly reevaluate our assumptions about critical infrastructure and its social purpose. We’ll have to decide whether water and power delivery, transportation, communication networks and flood and fire controls exist to serve the public or simply as mechanisms to garner profits for private investors. If the latter, what, if anything, is owed by the profiting corporations to the public that consumes their goods and services?
Should their profits be reinvested into enhancing their services’ capacity to resist increasingly probable climate-related events? Or, should profits simply be extracted from the service and moved to, say, offshore repositories? Who gets to decide?
Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Northern California’s massive power monopoly, is a case in point. Somewhat confusingly called a “public utility,” the company is privately owned but relatively heavily regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). PG&E paid $4.5 billion to its shareholders in the past five years, along with millions in executive bonuses and millions more in state lobbying for, among other things, higher stock returns. Meanwhile, the company deferred power line maintenance to the extent that it has been blamed for sparking 17 of California’s 23 major fires in 2017 and the 2018 fire that destroyed the town of Paradise.
But California’s response had been insipid. The CPUC essentially allowed PG&E to draw up its own “Wildfire Safety Plan” that, thankfully, includes better line maintenance but predominantly relies on shutting off power to hundreds of communities, thousands of businesses and millions of people if potential wildfire conditions develop. These power shutoffs in and of themselves are massively disruptive, hitting ordinary people and small businesses with losses they can ill afford — and putting them in greater danger during emergencies.
A more appropriate response would be to reconfigure the electrical system for localized solar power generation and for that power to be delivered mostly underground. Along with its obvious benefits for the climate, local solar generation with smart-grid controls would enable limiting power shutoffs to areas where they are truly needed while keeping most customers energized. Undergrounding eliminates most sparking.
But these upgrades would require reinvesting PG&E’s profits into its infrastructure. Ultimately, the public must take it on itself to control and rebuild California’s (and the nation’s) decaying infrastructure from the ground up, planning, as well as we can, for the impacts of climate change. Sanctioning business as usual means we’re relying on pure luck at our ecological house.