Practical Approaches to Sustainability and Climate Resiliency Amidst COVID-19

April 22, 2020

By forcing us to forgo everyday activities, the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the stark effect that we have on our environment. Countries that have restricted social movement and public gatherings have seen air and water quality improve dramatically in a month’s time. We have witnessed the same in parts of the U.S., as Los Angeles is breathing its cleanest air in 40 years. (Update: Air pollution levels were returning to pre-pandemic levels by March 2021.) Yet this offers no solace to a world grappling with the pandemic’s immense humanitarian toll and economic fallout. We have never been so aware of the complex interrelationship between our economy and our environment nor the importance of understanding the delicate tradeoffs between productivity and pollution, particularly greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In China, where lockdown restrictions are beginning to ease, environmental conditions are returning to a pre-pandemic state. Can the U.S. chart a better course back to normal? If so, how do we ensure our economic recovery is environmentally sustainable long term?

We can start by identifying behaviors like teleworking, which have gained wider acceptance in a COVID-19 world but are also advantageous to sustainability and climate change mitigation. These behaviors may be continued to a much greater extent post-pandemic than was previously believed realistic. In 2012, LMI published Climate Change: What You Can Do Now to help program managers and policymakers understand how climate science could inform actionable policy guidance. I was one of several contributing authors who examined how practical changes in public health, information technology and communications, land use, infrastructure, vehicles and fleets, supply chain, and national security could support sustainability and resiliency outcomes. One recommendation, telehealth appointments in lieu of driving to the doctor’s office, has similarly gained prominence as we find new ways to conduct our lives safely.

As individuals and organizations gain an appreciation for how technology allows them to conduct activities differently, attitudes are changing. There is a unique opportunity to make select sustainable and climate risk management practices mainstream and introspective organizations will begin to assess those practices now. While none may be adopted with the strict adherence we see today, for economic as well as practical reasons, they nonetheless can support sustainability with negligible impact on organizations’ productivity.

Infrastructure has been a cornerstone of U.S. economic recoveries dating back to the public works projects to combat the Great Depression. If such projects factor into our pandemic recovery, we must ensure 21st century infrastructure is built to withstand the modern-day threats of wildfires, flooding, and extreme weather events associated with sea-level rise and warming temperatures. The federal government pays for 60% of hurricane damage, such as rebuilding Puerto Rico’s electrical infrastructure (estimated $17 billion) after hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 and reparing Tyndall Air Force Base (est. $3 billion) in Florida after Hurricane Michael in 2018. It is easy to see how, if executed properly, a nationwide infrastructure revitalization effort that incorporates sound sustainability, climate mitigation, and resiliency practices could turn billions of stimulus dollars spent into billions of dollars more saved over the next 30 years.

To achieve this, climate resiliency must become a foundational component of infrastructure project planning. At LMI, we partner with The Climate Service to help federal agencies understand, in fiscal terms, how much risk their property, assets, and operations face from climate hazards, and how that risk may evolve over time as hazards become more probable or severe due to changing climate conditions. Customers can anticipate changes to their operational environment over decades, informing decisions like where to build future installations or store assets. Improving the climate risk posture of potential stimulus projects could be one of the most significant opportunities to brace our national infrastructure for the climate impacts sure to come.  

Clear skies notwithstanding, there is no silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic. But someday we will arrive at some semblance of normal and sustainability and climate resiliency will be an organizational priority once more. We owe it to ourselves to explore how we make it the best normal we can.

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