March 13, 2012

Actualizing Climate Cooperation in the Asia Pacific: Lessons from New Orleans

As the United States rebalances in the Asia Pacific, cooperation around climate adaptation could be a tremendous opportunity to strengthen our relationships with existing and emerging partners in the region. In a post last week I noted a thoughtful piece by Francisco Femia and Caitlin Werrell of The Center for Climate and Security that fleshes out how U.S. policymakers should think about integrating climate change into a strategy for the Asia-Pacific region, including developing a “Climate Investment Plan” that would encourage the United States to make good on its commitment to help raise climate finance funds that would assist developing countries in adapting to the effects of climate change.

The Climate Investment Plan that Femia and Werrell describe would be an important element of a strategy for the Asia Pacific. But beyond helping raise the funds for these countries to pay for climate adaptation projects, what other opportunities should the United States consider as avenues for cooperation?

One area ripe for cooperation are more science and technology agreements that share lessons learned from U.S. projects that would help our partners navigate engineering challenges or other roadblocks to successfully implementing climate adaptation projects. One project that comes to mind is the New Orleans Storm Surge Barrier. The Science Channel has a great program called “Build it Bigger” that highlighted this project in a recent episode. The idea behind the storm surge wall is to protect the city of New Orleans from another Katrina-size hurricane that could potentially inundate the city again.

 The specs for the project speak to the magnitude/engineering feat:

Two miles long and 32 feet high, the wall is built on a foundation of thousands of massive 6-foot diameter concrete piles driven 130 feet into the lakebed. And it's not just tall and strong — it's thick. 600 angled 'batter' piles reinforce the backside of the wall, giving it a 100-foot wide footprint. Massive concrete caps are placed on top of the wall to bring its final height to 26 feet above high tide. This wall will trump the current largest storm barrier — the Oosterschelde Barrier in the Netherlands — unrivaled for the past 25 years.

What particularly interested me about this project were the engineering challenges that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the other partners had to overcome in building the massive two-mile long storm surge wall. For example, the lakebed supporting the structure is largely constituted of loose mud, which required engineers to drive 130 foot-long batter piles deep into the lakebed’s foundation in order to provide the kind of stability one would encounter with a more solid foundation. This required the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a unique pile driver that could bear the load of the massive batter piles and drive them in at the proper angle. (Note: the engineers had to weld the batter piles together because they were too heavy as one solid 130-foot long piece, which required careful coordination between the crane and pile driver operators.)

I would imagine there are developing countries in the Asia Pacific that are both concerned about hurricanes or typhoons inundating the shoreline and facing similar challenges with respect to developing storm surge walls in less-than-ideal terrain, such as loose mud foundation. Sharing the lesson learned from the New Orleans Storm Surge Barrier could be an avenue for cooperation with our existing and emerging partners, especially considering that it would help keep them from reinventing the wheel and sinking in extra costs into the project they might not need to make.

The New Orleans project represents just one project of many being planned and developed in the United States. There is a lot of potential for the United States to enhance cooperation around sharing lessons learned. Of course, there are sensitivities with respect to some of the proprietary nature of these projects. Nevertheless, U.S. policymakers should consider science and technology sharing agreements as a viable option for enhancing our relationship with countries in the Asia Pacific and moving a step closer to making the United States a credible partner in combating the effects of climate change.

Photo: The New Orleans Storm Surge Barrier, officially known as the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Surge Barrier, under construction in 2009. Courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.