Adaptive infrastructure regulation : designing for climate change


University of British Columbia

Date Issued


Document Type



Master of Laws - LLM




Climate change represents a vexing challenge for infrastructure design. There is increasingly widespread acknowledgement that design practices need to change in order to ensure that structures built today can withstand changes in average climate conditions, growing climate variability, and more frequent and extreme weather events over the coming decades. Yet substantial uncertainty persists with respect to the specific future conditions that structures should be designed for, leading to regulatory paralysis: despite the need for urgent action, regulation continues to require that infrastructure design be based on the assumption that past climate will be representative of future climate. This thesis argues that, in the face of this bedevilling combination of urgency and uncertainty, government regulation will be required to generate the changes in design practices needed to ensure that structures designed today will be resilient and robust to the climate impacts they are likely to confront over their lifetimes. Using the example of the National Building Code of Canada, this thesis identifies several stress points in existing regulatory frameworks for infrastructure design. In particular, this thesis demonstrates that existing methods for dealing with uncertainty in infrastructure design regulation are likely to be overwhelmed by the deep uncertainties surrounding climate change, and that the poor adaptive capacity of existing frameworks renders them unable to keep pace with the increasingly rapid pace of change. Responding appropriately and proactively to these challenges demands a new regulatory paradigm. This regulatory paradigm should draw guidance from new governance theory in the legal scholarship, as well as a range of ‘adaptive’ approaches developed in other disciplines — adaptive management, adaptive governance, and adaptive policymaking. The core of a new, adaptive regulatory paradigm should be a structured, iterative regulatory process that is capable of responding quickly and appropriately to new knowledge and unfolding realities, and formal and informal, multi-level networks that foster learning, cooperation, collaboration, and innovation. Without such a paradigm shift, the existing regulatory paradigm will fall into crisis, rendering structures designed today vulnerable to failure in the face of tomorrow’s climate, and thereby compromising substantial infrastructure investments and increasing risks to public safety.

Date Available



Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada




Law, Peter A. Allard School of