Infrastructure protectionHard choices to be made on adapting infrastructure to climate change

Published 30 November 2012

The costs of adapting to climate change, sea-level, and flooding include the upfront expenses of upgrading infrastructure, installing early-warning systems, and effective organizations, as well as the costs of reducing risk, such as not building on flood plains

Uncertainty about how much the climate is changing is not a reason to delay preparing for the harmful impacts of climate change, says Professor Robert Nicholls of the University of Southampton and colleagues at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, writing in Nature Climate Change.

The costs of adapting to climate change, sea-level, and flooding include the upfront expenses of upgrading infrastructure, installing early-warning systems, and effective organizations, as well as the costs of reducing risk, such as not building on flood plains.

Nicholls, Professor of Coastal Engineering at the University of Southampton and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, says: “Some impacts of climate change are now inevitable, so it is widely agreed that we must adapt. But selecting and funding adaptation remains a challenge.”

A University of Southampton release reports that Nicholls and his co-authors describe two ways of assessing how much adaptation to climate change is enough by balancing the risk of climate change against the cost of adaptation.

First they describe cost-benefit analysis where the cost of the adaptation has to be less than the benefit of risk reduction. Alternatively, decision makers can seek the most cost-effective way of maintaining a tolerable level of risk. This approach is easier for policymakers to understand, but thresholds of tolerable risk from climate change are not well defined.

The Thames Estuary Gateway is the only place in the United Kingdom where a level of protection against flooding is defined in law — a 1 in 1000 year standard of protection which needs to be maintained with rising sea levels. The authors conclude that adaptation decisions need exploration across a variety of different interpretations of risk, not a single answer.

“Adaptation decisions have further benefits. The tenfold increase in the Netherlands standard of flood protection proposed in 2008 has sent a message to global business that the Netherlands will be open in the future, come what may,” adds Nicholls.

— Read more in Jim W. Hall et al., “Proportionate adaptation,” Nature Climate Change 2 (27 November 2012): 833–34 (doi:10.1038/nclimate1749)

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