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WASHINGTON, DC: July 29, 2019. Kristy Dahl Ph.D is a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). In May she presented written testimony to the U.S. Congress House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology Committee on what impact the climate crisis will have on the country’s transportation infrastructure – and what can be done about it.

The following is an edited version of her presentation that can be downloaded in full here or from the organisation’s website.

“We rely on our roads, rails, and airplanes for safe, reliable transportation, and they serve as a backbone for our country’s economy. Infrastructure is typically designed to last 50 to 100 years. New infrastructure projects or improvements must therefore account for future usage increases as well as changes in the environment that could affect reliability or capacity.

“Climate change is making extreme weather events more frequent and more severe, which amplifies the economic damage we’re forced to absorb and imposes a steep toll on peoples’ lives. Future climate change will amplify the risks our vulnerable transportation systems already face.

“The transportation sector is also the leading contributor to US heat-trapping emissions, and there are many opportunities to transition to a low-carbon transportation infrastructure while making it more resilient.

“UCS research shows that by the end of the century, 2.5 million US coastal homes and commercial properties currently worth more than US$1 trillion today could be at risk from chronic flooding worsened by sea level rise. Many parts of the Northeast Corridor rail route are at risk of chronic flooding starting by 2060, including sections near Wilmington, Delaware, and throughout Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. Current preparation efforts fall far short of these realities.

“This Spring alone has brought extended flooding to many parts of the country, including Louisiana, Texas, the Midwest, and along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. NOAA data confirm that at the end of April 2019 the US has just experienced the wettest 12 months on record.

“This record-breaking flooding has washed out roads and bridges in many places, sometimes for days on end. In Nebraska alone, the flooding caused an estimated US$100 million in damage to the state’s highway system. Rail lines in Nebraska and Missouri were shut down for weeks.

“For much of the contiguous US, the frequency of extreme heat events has been increasing since the mid-1960s and the number of high temperature records has outpaced the number of low temperature records, particularly since the mid-1980s.

“As extreme heat events become more frequent and more severe in response to rising atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping gases, so too will disruptions to our transportation systems.

“Climate change and its consequences are already upon us. Given our past carbon emissions, we are committed to a certain amount of sea level rise and future warming. Ignoring the issue will not make it go away or lessen its impacts.

“Solutions to the issue of climate change must focus on both adaptation to cope with the changes that lie ahead and mitigation to reduce future carbon emissions, which will limit the magnitude of future warming.

“Adaptation can have limits—for example port facilities need to remain on the water to serve their function and is not feasible or advisable to protect every mile of shoreline with a seawall. Because many of the adaptation-oriented solutions will require years of planning and an even longer implementation period, it is imperative that we begin planning now.

“Policymakers must ensure that federal investments in the transportation sector strengthen the resilience of transit systems to climate change impacts while also ensuring acceleration towards low-carbon transit systems.

“New long-lived transportation infrastructure must be designed to withstand the future impacts of climate change. For example, to account for rising sea levels and intensifying rainstorms, infrastructure should be built at least two feet above the 100-year flood level (three feet for critical infrastructure)—a design standard that would have a high return on investment and would serve as a benchmark for other public and private investments.

“The US transportation sector, which includes cars, trucks, planes, trains, ships, and freight, produces nearly 30 percent of all US global warming emissions.

“This is more than any other sector. Over 90 percent of the fuel used for transportation is petroleum-based, with gasoline and diesel being the primary fuels. Given its contributions to global warming emissions, the transportation sector is in the position of being both a major contributor to global warming and highly vulnerable because of that warming.

“Because of this, the transportation sector would benefit greatly from global emissions reductions; and the world would benefit greatly from emissions reductions from the transportation sector. There are many policies that could result in transportation emissions reductions while also reducing human exposure to harmful pollution, the burden of which falls disproportionately on traditionally underserved communities.

“Such policies include, but are not limited to:

• Increasing fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards for vehicles
• Increased investment in low-carbon public transportation systems, such as rail systems
• Replacing gas-powered public bus fleets with electric bus fleets
• Incentivising deployment of more electric vehicles, including through investment in charging infrastructure
• Research on highly efficient conventional vehicle technologies, batteries for electric vehicles, cleaner fuels, and emerging new technologies
• Implementing a market-based cap and invest program for the transportation sector, such as the proposed Transportation and Climate Initiative.

“As we look to the future, we can make our transportation systems more resilient and adaptable by incorporating climate-safe design standards into the planning process. At the same time, rapidly transitioning to low-carbon transportation systems could significantly reduce emissions from the transportation sector and thus help to limit the scale of future warming and its impacts.”

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