CURRENTS: FIRST READ
Adapting to Climate Change
While the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is greater than ever, we now also ought to focus attention on adapting our buildings to the inevitable impacts of climate change.
Climate change is no longer a question of whether or when. It is a reality. Northern regions have experienced significant warming in the past few decades. Glaciers and pack ice in the Antarctic and Arctic are melting at an alarming rate. Rising sea levels are driving residents of some low-lying island countries from their homes. Changing precipitation patterns are turning arable land into deserts and exacerbating forest fires. And powerful storms are appearing in unusual places with devastating ferocity. Worse, the pace of these changes has surpassed even the most dire predictions of a few years ago.
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A new report on the impacts of climate change that will be seen in the U. S. paints the clearest picture yet of what’s ahead. The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), a multi-agency research effort set up under the George W. Bush Administration, produced “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States” (available at www.globalchange.gov), a document that provides sobering projections about specific climate-change impacts for different regions of the country. The impacts in the U.S. of the “unequivocal” global warming that is occurring, according to the report, will include higher temperatures in every region, greater incidence of intense rainfall events in the Northeast, droughts in the West, rising sea levels that will inundate key roadways and ports along the Gulf Coast, increased crop pests and reduced crop production in the Midwest, and rising heat-related deaths in cities.
The bottom line is that we must redouble efforts to mitigate (prevent or slow) climate change, but at the same time, we as designers, planners, and developers, must create buildings and communities that can adapt to a changing climate. Even if we were to somehow turn off the greenhouse-gas spigot tomorrow, global warming will continue.
The USGCRP report suggests that even with the most optimistic reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, we can still expect 4 to 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit of warming in the U.S. by the end of the century—and 7 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit without significant emission reductions.
So what does adaptation look like? How can we integrate the anticipation of climate change into our designs? Doing this takes many forms and applies at different scales: from the individual building to the community and region. A few examples of specific strategies for incorporating adaptation in planning and design are shown in the accompanying sidebar.
As the realities of climate change increasingly move from the technical reports of climate scientists to practitioners, and as the remaining naysayers are finally forced to concede their positions to overwhelming evidence, we in the design profession will have to address these realities in our work. Building codes will mandate that we design buildings and communities that will adapt to climate change, and building for future conditions may soon become part of the building professional’s “standard of care.”
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