The Indicator: Two Degrees of Separation

© NASA Goddard Photo and Video

“…clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”

Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World

Hurricane Sandy painfully clarified the deadly implications of climate change. In fact, the superstorm was so forceful as a reminder of just what climate change means in real terms that it played a decisive role in the presidential election. 

Here in the US, the issue defines political divides. A recent Pew Research Center survey shows 85% of Democrats believe climate change is a scientific fact, while only 48% of Republicans believe so. Another poll shows 68% of Americans believing climate change is a serious problem and 38% believing it is a very serious problem.

The impact of Sandy may have played a role in bumping these numbers up but there is still no slam dunk on the issue when roughly 30% of the population still believes climate change is not real. For those of you outside the US this is your cue to roll your eyes and say, Stupid Americans. 

Continue reading The Indicator after the break

An EU survey tells another story. A Guardian article, citing a new Eurobarometer poll, was boldly titled, “Europeans fear climate change more than financial turmoil, poll shows.” This poll also shows a majority of respondents, also 68%, believing climate change to be one of the most serious problems facing the world. Climate change was ranked second after poverty.

While the general population is free to debate whether or not climate change is real, the scientific community, looking at the evidence, has been dealing with the incontrovertible fact that human activity is changing the climate. What they debate are the nuances about time and intensity, not the fundamentals. And what the fundamentals show is that we can expect extreme weather events like Sandy to become more commonplace, if they aren’t already. 

What we are talking about when we talk about climate change are the implications of an increase in global temperature by a mere two degrees. That is all it takes to throw spaceship Earth completely off-balance. Some scientists think that is the point of no return. According to NASA we have already increased the temperature by close to 1.5 degrees and are fast-approaching that critical two-degree mark. According to research by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies:

“The Earth's average global surface temperature has already risen .8 degrees Celsius since 1880, and is now warming at a rate of more than .1 degree Celsius every decade. This warming is largely driven by increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, particularly carbon dioxide, emitted by the burning of fossil fuels at power plants, in cars and in industry. At the current rate of fossil fuel burning, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will have doubled from pre-industrial times by the middle of this century. A doubling of carbon dioxide would cause an eventual warming of several degrees.”

Photo by That Hartford Guy (ia Flickr). Used under Creative Commons

The Earth, it seems, is more delicate than previously imagined. Slight changes can send it reeling. Based on the paleoclimate record, or the history of climate change through different epochs, they have determined that a two-degree increase would be “a prescription for disaster.” During previous epochs marked by climate change, the temperature fluctuation remained within the one-degree range. According to their conclusions, a two-degree increase in temperature could “move Earth closer to Pliocene-like conditions, when sea level was in the range of 25 meters higher than today.” Moreover, they note how every degree rise will result in 20 meters of sea level rise. Sandy’s surge was 3-4 meters.

The other interesting thing about that magic two-degrees is that it pushes predictability into uncertain territory. Based on the Earth’s climate record a two-degree increase has never happened before so there is little evidence to go on for just how changes might manifest and to what intensities. In sum, they don’t know what will happen, but they think it could be pretty bad—not end of the world bad, but bad nonetheless. We’ll all be a lot more uncomfortable on our home planet. Our children and grandchildren most certainly will understand the reality of climate change. 

So why didn’t we listen to Al Gore he first time around and take more immediate steps to prevent this? In fact, why haven’t we been listening to and trusting scientists who have been ringing the climate bell since the 1800’s? That’s another article.

So where does architecture fit in all of this? As Architecture 2030 tates, the building sector is the problem and the building sector is the solution. Here in the US, buildings rely on 75.7% of all the electricity produced for their operation (44.9% of this power is produced by burning coal); they consume 48.7% of all energy produced; and they are the largest contributor to climate change, spewing out 46.7% of CO2 emissions.

Let’s repeat that: BUILDINGS ARE THE LARGEST CONTRIBUTOR TO CLIMATE CHANGE. Doesn’t that make you feel good about your job?

While you can feel good about organizations like 2030, the USGBC, with its ever-sophisticated LEED ratings, and green codes through the International Code Council, the science of climate change is demanding more drastic and dramatic movement away from business as usual. We may not have until 2030. According to Greenpeace, to prevent potentially irreversible damage, CO2 emissions should peak by 2015 and then steadily decrease. Some climate scientists see 2020 as the critical threshold. 

Whatever the dates, architecture needs to act faster than it has. To do this it has to be aligned with governments and empowered by laws and building codes to mandate that all retrofits and new buildings are green buildings. That’s right.

Is there really any reason why architecture is not exclusively doing green buildings, regardless of aesthetics? Shouldn’t all the buildings you see on ArchDaily be green? Not that they have to have that certain “green building” look we all love. 

In light of the urgency surrounding climate change, the only logical response for architecture should be to do no other buildings than green buildings. Period. What is the alternative? Here is your toxic, polluting, energy-hog building? Why are we still erecting out-dated buildings with out-dated materials and technologies? Isn’t this sort of like if Detroit were to start making Model T’s again and they were to say, That’s just what we’ve always done and that’s the way we do things?

Yes, we can blame developers and clients. OK. So what should we do then? The elective rating systems are not working fast enough because developers and clients can opt out. To ramp up green design and building it will take policy modification at federal, state and local levels in coordination with professional architectural bodies and code organizations. Essentially, it should be illegal to build anything but a green building. 

Government must play a central role to help incentivize the transition with low interest rates and tax incentives. They already do this a little bit through programs like Energy Star, but they have to push further and invest more—remember the dream of the Green Economy from 2008? The costs of climate change will be far greater than what is required to incentivize a true green building revolution as the new normal. 

The shock to the building industry can be smoothed over by a healthy dose of, dare I say it, socialism or engaged progressive government. Yes, we are going back to that idea of the Green Economy, or a Green New Deal, but the climate change emergency we are facing might just be the thing to catalyze it. This may also be the thing to catalyze architecture as it claws its way out of a global recession. 

Do the most sustainable building every time. Do the healthiest building every time. Do the maximum every time. It should be impossible to do anything less. Sandy now demands it. 

How would you envision a more aggressive architectural response to climate change? Can architects really have a significant impact? 

About this author
Cite: Rodrigo Frey. "The Indicator: Two Degrees of Separation" 20 Nov 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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