Disasters of all types have dominated the national and international news in 2023. There have been earthquakes, floods, wildfires, extended heat emergencies and other human caused disasters that come from neglect of our critical infrastructures. Our disaster future here in the United States and the Pacific Northwest is tied to what, where and how we build in the future.
Climate change has been a significant driver for some of the more intense climate impacts we have seen over the last 10 months. Still, climate change is not on the top of the agenda.
The reality is that “today” it looks like we, as a world, will not be willing to swallow the medicine required to reduce fossil fuel emissions to a point where we will collectively slow the impacts of a warming Earth. Nations, companies and individuals would rather make a dollar today than prevent calamity in the future.
Which leaves us with climate adaptation as the only solution we have to stave off the worst impacts of a warming climate. These choices are in the hands of state and local elected officials, business leaders and citizens — not the federal government in Washington, D.C. While we can’t change the past, we can adapt to the future by where, what and how we build going forward.
Many of our booming communities are those with a very healthy building industry. That industry is dependent upon a continued growth in a population demanding new housing and businesses to support that growth. Developers lead the way, followed by builders and the men and women who provide new homes and offices to support the growth. New houses demand roofing, plumbing, flooring, appliances and the furniture that goes into these new homes. All of the above are an economic boom.
The picture is clear. Go to the Rust Belt, where there is a declining population, and you will find little new development happening. Instead, it is states like Florida, Arizona and Texas that are hot spots for growth. A decision then needs to be made about where that growth will be permitted to occur. Even with all the disasters that include hurricanes and flooding, we as a people continue to seek places near the water. If you want never-ending sunshine, there are states that will provide it. And, some are close to becoming uninhabitable during summer based on air temperature alone. Add to that, sunshine states in the American West are running out of fresh water.
Continued growth also means extending construction into what is called the wildland interface area where homes meet the forest and other areas prone to wildfires. The only thing that will stop any of the above are locally elected officials who will not trade safety for growth at any cost.
Which leads us to the Pacific Northwest. In climate terms, our temperate climate will be a mecca for climate refugees who are looking for cooler place to live with “seemingly abundant” water resources.
Constructing a new building that is more disaster resilient can cost as little as an additional 2% to the construction cost. However, penny-wise, profit-driven developers want homes closer together on narrow streets that allow for more buildings. Elected officials like the increased tax base and the jobs that come with the construction of new developments. And yes, you future homeowners are looking for hardwood floors and stainless steel appliances, not disaster resilient homes.
Our disaster future will be driven by a thousand different choices that will be made in local planning commissions, company offices and around kitchen tables as people must decide where, what and how to build. Our ability to avoid being in future disaster zones will be based upon the above choices.