If we continue with business as usual, Hansen asserts, within a few decades much of the ice at higher altitudes could be lost — with devastating effects on coastal areas. He emphasizes that we need to focus on effects that are irreversible — such as the loss of species like the polar bear and other artic species. Presently, Greenland now loses 36 cubic miles (150 cubic kilometers) of ice per year.
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Fifty-five million years ago, when there was a 10.8-degree Fahrenheit (6-degree Centigrade) rise in global temperatures, 90 percent of the world's species perished. A mere 5.4-degree F (3-degree C) upswing now could cause a 50-percent extinction rate.
To avoid degenerating to this "very different planet," Hansen stresses that we need to limit any future change to 1.8 degrees F (1 degree C). Even at that rate, 10 percent of the earth's wild species might perish.
Hansen places much of his hope on the involvement of young people — those who will face the brunt of this problem in the future. He points to the upcoming Step it Up '07 demonstrations on April 14, 2007 as a positive sign of action and a way for everyone to get involved.
The 2030 Challenge
Architect and activist Edward Mazria began his presentation by reading a detailed account of the U.S. Gulf region being hit by a major hurricane. The now familiar scenario of breached levies, thousands lost, millions homeless, and two months to pump the city dry — all told exactly as it happened.
Then came Mazria's chilling revelation that the account he was reading was from a National Geographic article based on scientists' and engineers' predictions written one year before Hurricane Katrina hit. The point, of course, is that catastrophic consequences might occur if we ignore scientifically based climate threats.
Mazria points out that 48 percent of energy consumed in the United States is attributable to the building sector — 40 percent in building operations and 8 percent in construction. Building siting decisions affect additional energy consumption in other sectors such as transportation. And we have a tremendous opportunity to change the way we build because it's projected that between now and 2035, three quarters of the building stock will have been built new or renovated.
The challenge Mazria poses to architects and builders is to cut greenhouse gasses by 60 percent by 2010 and to make buildings CO2 neutral by 2030. He proposes a three-level approach.
The first level involves practically no cost and integrates design and planning innovation at the site and community scales. This includes simple options such as passive solar heating, daylighting, and life-cycle-conscious design. As an example from Mazria's own firm, the Mount Airy Library achieved an 80 percent reduction in CO2 emissions solely through design strategies.
Second, if reductions can't be achieved solely through design, then architects can turn to technological features such as solar hot water heating, photovoltaics, or geothermal energy. And the final choice in achieving emission reductions is to purchase "green" energy such as wind or solar.
In the 2010 Imperative, Mazria urges architecture schools to add to their curriculum the requirement that "all projects engage the environment in a way that dramatically reduces or eliminates the need for fossil fuels. He also suggests that design schools should lead by example and make their own buildings carbon-neutral buildings by 2010.
Engineering the Future
The teach-in's third panelist was Chris Luebkeman, director of the Global Foresight and Innovation Initiative of the engineering firm Arup. Luebkeman presented several current projects as examples of rethinking the way we build.
China's 600 million people are shifting from predominantly rural to predominantly urban — the largest population shift in history. The country's burgeoning economy will soon surpass the United States in CO2 emissions.
In response to these changes, the Chinese government is planning to build new sustainable cities. Arup is helping to design a huge community in Dongtan, China using "interlaced design," which links a wide range of sustainable strategies in transportation, architecture, and manufacturing.
Another example of Arup's integrated approach is Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZed). Built several years ago in the London borough of Sutton, BedZed has become a case study for buildings that strive to use no energy from the grid. Although the project has had setbacks, the buildings produce 40 percent less carbon than a comparable conventional project, with expectations for future improvement.
Countering the Naysayers
There are still those few who see global warming as a myth — or at least an exaggeration. But some of them, including those in the U.S. government, have at least progressed from outright denial to doubting whether the changes are caused by human activity. In a recent interview with ABC News, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney made his priorities clear:
"You can't shut down the world economy in the name of trying to eliminate greenhouse gases. But there are some answers out there — nuclear power, for example, is one of them. And getting the United States back into the nuclear power game I think would be a significant benefit — both in terms of producing the energy we need, but at the same time not contributing to greenhouse gas emissions"
But as Mazria showed in his 2010 Imperative Teach-In presentation, architects can make a major contribution through simple changes that won't "shut down the economy." They can also do so without reviving the hazardous nuclear power industry.
According to Hansen's statistics, the United States is responsible for much of the carbon now in the atmosphere. The country has the largest per capita CO2 emissions and is responsible for 27 percent of the total human-generated atmospheric CO2 to date. These facts reinforce the notion that the United States, as the world's leading consumer of fossil fuels, bears a significant responsibility to change its current course.
Hansen's presentation showed what's at stake. The "different planet" he speaks of would include catastrophic changes that could dwarf threats from terrorism, hurricanes, or regional conflicts. In contrast, when Cheney was asked about the growing body of evidence behind human-generated global warming, he shrugged, "I'm not a scientist."
Luckily one doesn't have to be a scientist to recognize and act to mitigate the tremendous risk we face. Nor does the architectural community have to depend on the federal government for leadership. We all have a responsibility to become informed and carefully choose our sources for information. Noted environmental scholar Bill McKibben wrote in the Boston Globe: "You can argue with Hansen if you want. But you better bring a pretty big data set with you. He's been right so far."
To a significant extent, the speakers' pleas for change were directed at architecture students and their schools and teachers. The urgency was palpable in their presentations: much of their hope for change lies in the potential of the forthcoming generation of architects to stem the tide on this planetary threat.
The live webcast was successful in giving a sense of immediacy to the issues. The panelists were able to answer questions live from around the world and from attendees ranging from elementary school students to professionals. The event underlined the power of the Web as a tool for grassroots education and activism.
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Michael Cockram is an adjunct assistant professor of architecture at the University of Oregon. He is the director of the Italy Field School Program.