Climate change is a scientifically undeniable phenomenon that has already exerted negative effects across the globe, and—barring massive worldwide interventions—it ’s only going to get worse.
As inhabitants of a shared planet, this is a problem for which we all share responsibility. As wildfires destroy homes, schools and entire communities, and other communities struggle to rebuild after record-setting floods, architects and engineers can and should play an important role.
We have to build spaces that can withstand the looming threats precipitated by a warming earth. And while we’re at it, we have to design buildings that are increasingly sustainable in an effort to roll back greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible.
How Climate Change Impacts Us All
The Global Change Research Act of 1990 contains a requirement that a report be prepared and delivered to the United States Congress and President every four years to outline the effects of global climate change on the country.
This year, on the day after Thanksgiving, the US government released the Fourth National Climate Assessment as required by the Act. This latest assessment draws knowledge from 300 climate scientists and has the backing of 13 government agencies. It paints a dire picture of the impact climate change is already having on our land, water, health and economy—as well as outlining major trends and impacts that will be seen in the coming decades.
The data in this report makes it absolutely clear that the climate is warming, in large part, due to human actions and that this change is already beginning to be seen in negative impacts. The warming climate, and its cascading effects, stands to be devastating to human life if action is not taken quickly and aggressively.
The 1,600-page report outlines all of the ways that climate change is currently impacting each region of the United States, as well as how those impacts will worsen as the climate continues to warm. The report summary states the following:
The report clearly states that these future impacts will continue to grow unless mitigation strategies are undertaken today. Further, the report indicates that future impacts of climate change will be directly quantifiable using metrics of human death and financial losses to the economy. Yikes.
What Can Be Done About Climate Change
In addition to outlining the current and future impact of climate change and going into great detail on what is causing climate change (hint: it’s largely carbon emissions), the report attempts to offer strategies for combating climate change on various levels using a variety of specific, targeted strategies.
These suggested strategies are important. It can be easy to start feeling overwhelmed by the global, complex and interconnected nature of climate change. And while some of the strategies do involve very significant, government-scale efforts like instituting carbon taxes or using public funding for renewable energy incentives, others s are much more accessible on a smaller scale: cities, communities, buildings and individuals.
There are steps that every person, every office building and every community can take today to help.
I found it especially helpful, but also distressing, that the report breaks down potential actions into two categories: mitigation strategies and adaptation strategies. This should be a real wake up call. We are past the point of just trying to prevent climate change through mitigation efforts like energy and emissions reductions.
We have reached the point where we also have to start implementing strategies for adapting to climate change impacts that are already being felt. While mitigation strategies are fairly universal, different regions of the country are experiencing different early impacts of climate change: flooding, wildfires and decreasing agricultural production. Consequently, adaptation strategies will need to vary by region and include targeted strategies around careful urban planning, flood avoidance, drought resistance, extreme weather event protection and forest management for wildfire prevention.
How Architects are Addressing Climate Change
Architects have been participating in the climate change dialogue for many years now. The focus, however, has primarily been on prevention and mitigation through improved building energy efficiency commitments like Architecture 2030 and comprehensive sustainable design efforts like LEED Certification. Continued focus on mitigating climate change through building design is clearly essential.
The time has come now, however, for architects to also participate, and ideally lead, the conversation around adaptation to climate change. This is often referred to as resilient design in the architecture industry, and the importance of resiliency in architecture will almost certainly increase over time.
Resilient design focuses on providing diversity and redundancy in structures and systems to be prepared for unexpected demands. When we employ resilient design, we often use the approach of a modular- or component-based form that can be easily reconfigured or replaced in small segments as the need arises. In real terms: if environmental catastrophes like floods and wildfires damage one part of the building, the entire structure isn’t compromised.
The ability to respond to change is the key component of a resilient design. Resiliency can be implemented on multiple scales from individual systems, to whole buildings and all the way up to entire cities or regions.
Climate change is no longer a theoretical, distant future. The impacts of climate change are now being seen daily and must be dealt with through adaptation and resilience. The science is clear and stunning. The clarity, though, also provides us with the knowledge we need to move forward in preventing, and hopefully reversing climate change through decisive action.