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Originally published November 21, 2013 at 4:08 PM | Page modified November 21, 2013 at 5:52 PM

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Natural disasters and climate change: Seattle seawall and other smart plans

Smart planning for climate change includes building strength and capacity into public infrastructure. The word is resilience.


Times editorial columnist

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Trendy Seattle must add a new word to its progressive vocabulary: resilience.

In a time of severe storms and evident climate change, prudent investments are being made around the country in public infrastructure — roads and bridges, traffic lights and storm drains — that learn from horrific weather events, and anticipate rising sea levels.

Work that began this week on rebuilding Seattle’s waterfront seawall is a prime example of smart spending that looks ahead.

The aging, crumbling structure will get a stout, resilient replacement to protect downtown Seattle from storms and earthquakes.

All of the wacky climate-change deniers will keep yammering on talk radio, but the word is out that choices have consequences.

Thoughtful use of public policy and money now can save lives, and save vast sums in the future belatedly coping with the reality of climate change.

For starters, do not exacerbate glum conditions. Tens of thousands of Washington residents have made their concerns known about the proposed coal-export facility at Longview.

Plans for Longview, at Cherry Point near Bellingham and at the Port of Morrow in Oregon inspired a public outcry for the broadest possible review of the impacts on nearby communities, the state and the region.

Twenty Washington lawmakers signed a letter this week that urges a thorough examination of the Longview plan on the natural and built environments.

Hauling coal from the Powder River Basin by rail to ports for shipment overseas is a dubious economic venture and a daily intrusion on the lives of those suffering the endless coal trains.

Scientists around the world agree the best long-term protection for the climate is to end, in the words of a United Nations official, the unabated use of coal.

Local governments are paying attention. The 2012 King County Strategic Climate Action Plan is a detailed program for reducing carbon emissions. The cities of Issaquah, Kirkland and Seattle have their own versions.

The next step will be to link zoning requirements and building codes to the climate changes ahead. One might expect the insurance industry will be a source of pressure for change.

Elsewhere, grim experience has translated into a respectful acknowledgment of lessons learned.

Superstorm Sandy, which made landfall barely a year ago, has caused New York City to ease height limits so new construction meets standards that reflect flood and climate risks.

The smallest changes matter. U.S. Secretary of Transporation Anthony Foxx, a recent visitor with The Seattle Times editorial board, said communities are elevating traffic lights and signals before the next round of storms.

Foxx’s department is conducting a major study of the Central Gulf Coast region to look at the vulnerability of local transportation infrastructure to climate change and extreme weather.

The goal is to help the nation ensure the resiliency of highways, roads, bridges, tunnels, transit systems, docks and boardwalks.

Earthquake hazards and rising sea levels are stirring action. The Ocosta School District in Grays Harbor County is building a platform to shelter students from a tsunami. A pragmatic investment on the Washington coast.

Lots of folks are looking ahead. Some experts say South Florida can expect rising ocean levels measured in feet by the end of the century. Conservative estimates range from five to 15 inches.

The Miami Herald reports four counties with a population of 5.6 million have formed a consortium to act. Bucking business and real estate skeptics, the counties of Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach drafted a bipartisan climate action plan.

Some questions start very close to home. Can society afford the collateral economic and environmental damage from the contrivance of shipping coal?

Are we investing in infrastructure with the stamina to handle the brutal assaults a changing climate can deliver? Build roads and bridges, but elevate and reinforce them for what looms ahead.

Resilience. Plan and spend now, and save a lot later.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is ldickie@seattletimes.com



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