Tuesday, November 11, 2014

IPCC Response Essay #6: Approaching Climate Change through Systems Thinking

Keith H. Hirokawa, Professor of Law, Albany Law School

The IPCC Working Group II identifies natural and built infrastructure challenges as crucial to an adaptation strategy, as follows:

Climate change will have profound impacts on a broad spectrum of infrastructure systems (water and energy supply, sanitation and drainage, transport and telecommunication), services (including health care and emergency services), the built environment and ecosystem services. These interact with other social, economic, and environmental stressors exacerbating and compounding risks to individual and household well-being (medium confidence based on high agreement, medium evidence).[1]

In this statement, the working group identifies the wide range of social, economic, and environmental assets and responsibilities that will be challenged by climate changes. For purposes of this essay, it is significant that the IPCC chose to associate the costs of sustaining infrastructure and services with the built environment and ecosystem services. My observation is simple: if infrastructure and the built environment are to be sustainable in the face of climate changes—if it will have the capacity to meet the social, economic, and environmental necessities of our time and over time—an understanding of ecological services must be incorporated into infrastructure and built environment planning. Sound decisions about infrastructure and public services cannot be made without considering the relationship between essential services provision and ecosystem structure and function.

This essay uses water infrastructure as an illustration. Water infrastructure provides clean and sufficient water for drinking, as well as other water-intense uses such as irrigated agriculture and industry; transports water to where it is needed; treats waste and stormwater; handles storm surges and provides safety from such surges; and also provides recreational and community opportunities. The water system provides these services through the construction of an artificial system of physical capture and conveyance, storage, and treatment. The system’s strength is assessed by volume provision and miles of pipe.

That water infrastructure is addressed in climate change planning is no small thing: without an effective infrastructure, individuals may be unable to obtain basic needs and the consequences will be catastrophic. Of course, public access to adequate water is often difficult to insure. As such, the IPCC statement acknowledges the immense cost of infrastructure maintenance and replacement into the next century, as well as the “profound” importance that civil society effectively plan for scarcity and challenges to the provision of basic human needs.   It is of significant consequence that this observation arises in the context of urban resilience:  as Alexandra Klass notes (in this article), a shift towards urbanization that began over a century ago continues and even accelerates into the next century.   Society is becoming more urbanized and human population is becoming more concentrated, and as such, efficient and effective provision of public, essential services has become paramount.

Such changes require that governance prioritize planning to overcome the significant challenges faced in meeting infrastructure needs in human population centers. Such challenges are real with regard to physical and financial projections.  According to one estimate, the average cost of water infrastructure replacement in the developed world will range from $550-$2,300 to $6,300 per household for smaller systems, and up to $10,000 per household if treatment plants and pumps need replacement. In the meantime, the useful life of water infrastructure has declined: the average life expectancy for gray infrastructure has decreased from 120 years (for systems features installed in the late 1800s) down to 75 years for post-World War II infrastructure. The staggered life expectancies of water infrastructure components makes financing infrastructure more complicated, including equitably allocating scarce resources to the replacement where and when systems come to the end of their useful life.

The foregoing suggests the capture of substantial benefits from converging our assessment of necessary infrastructure with an inventory of ecosystem services. Ecosystem services is an approach to ecology and economics that focuses on ecosystem processes and ecosystem functionality.[2] This approach values the manner in which ecosystems produce goods of value, the manner in which ecosystems provide services that are essential to human well-being, and the economic value that can be attributed to functioning ecosystems as the value of the services they provide. The change in thinking toward ecosystem services is a monumental move toward climate change preparedness. Consider two realizations that come with ecosystem services thinking: 1) we have typically displaced and interrupted ecosystems to build infrastructure systems and the built environment, and 2) built infrastructure does not last forever. Ecosystem services offers an additional opportunity in infrastructure planning that envisions flexibility, adaptive reasoning, and risk analysis. Ecosystem services requires us to identify the ways that we rely on functioning ecosystems for clean air and water, temperature control, nutrient cycling, spiritual grounding, and a host of other services that are so essential to life that they often cannot be artificially replaced.

The thrust of ecosystem services thinking is that we need to break from commodity-based valuation. By focusing attention on the market values of goods that can be taken from ecosystems, without also accounting for the methods of sustaining the production of those goods or the loss of production in the future, we have expedited the decline of functionality throughout the natural systems. Both consumption and the corresponding inattention to ecosystem functions that occurs in the commodification of nature have limited the ability of ecosystems to regenerate and sustain themselves, requiring the production of substitutes. From this perspective, a resilient water infrastructure system will recognize the role that natural systems play in producing clean and sufficient water (rivers, lakes, streams, groundwater aquifers, floodplains, floodways, wetlands, and the watersheds), and will integrate those processes in formulating the means to capture, treat, store, and deliver water to places it is needed.

Switching to an ecosystem services accounting, (or at least incorporating ecosystem services into the infrastructure accounting) will produce better planning decisions. Examples of the benefits of ecosystem services planning are illustrated in the watershed investments in New York City and Seattle, where the acquisition of real property interests throughout the watershed has captured the value of ecosystem services in providing quality and quantity of public water supplies, or Santa Fe, which is currently identifying forest management practices that will facilitate the capture of watershed service from the ecosystem and help avoid the gargantuan costs of losing such services from forest fires and other events. These cities are investing in ecosystem functionality to insure that watersheds are performing as they can and should, at a fraction of the cost of built infrastructure, and as a minimal maintenance cost over time. They have incorporated the wisdom of ecosystem services:  the built or grey infrastructure that comprise their water systems are designed to provide services that are already provided by natural systems, including water and sewer, storm and flood protection, temperature control and climate stabilization, waste cycling and assimilation, and other natural services. As an additional benefit, natural systems provide these services very effectively and efficiently, while also securing other foundational goods and services including oxygen, water, land, recreational opportunities, aesthetic value and spiritual attachment and energy. 

Although ecosystem services planning is a new approach, it is essential that water managers incorporate ecosystem services concepts into the decision-making process. The result of such an integration would be to capture the benefits of functioning ecosystems, while protecting the valuable assets of natural capital.  Ecosystem services thinking connects ecosystem function with basic human needs—not merely as a means to protect the environment, but as a means to assure human well-being.



[1] IPCC WGII AR5 Chapter 8, at 3. 

[2] See, e.g., Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems (Gretchen C. Daily ed., 1997); Robert Costanza et al., The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital, 387 Nature 253 (1997); Robert Costanza & Herman E. Daly, Natural Capital and Sustainable Development, 6 Conservation Biology. 37 (1992). 

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