As two current events illustrate, climate change over the coming years is likely to test and ultimately expose the fundamental inadequacy of much of the infrastructure built to support modern societies. The first current event involves a record-breaking drought in South America which has left water taps dry in many homes in one of the largest cities in the world — San Paulo, Brazil. The second current event involves record-breaking cold and snow over the past month which has left significant portions of Boston’s public transportation system inoperable.
The idea that a major urban center could be without water or public transportation for any significant period of time is hard to fathom. These are epic lapses in public planning. While it’s easy to point fingers in such circumstances, what these epic lapses seem most to show is an inherent limitation in the way people understand risk and the possibility of change. It’s human nature for people to assume that what has happened will always happen.
When planners design infrastructure, they typically review historical records to find the most extreme situations that have previously occurred and try to design a system robust enough to address those extremes. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it assumes that at some point in recorded history we have already experienced the most extreme situations. The record- breaking weather extremes that climate change brings are likely to subject our infrastructure to challenges beyond their design capabilities, as we are seeing in Boston and San Paulo.
Insanity is not only to do the same thing in the same situtation and expect a different result; insanity is also to continue doing the same thing in changed circumstances and to expect the same result.