The Project is Going Down...
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Of course, this is actually happening. Right now.
However, it is not just happening at the scale of a single large project. It is happening at the scale of the whole U.S. building industry, and beyond.
Even with our painfully slow construction economy, even in the aftermath of a global financial crisis, greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 set new records.
"Humanity is putting its foot on the accelerator even though the world's top scientists and governments have repeatedly explained that we are headed over a cliff," in the words of Joe Romm at Climate Progress.1
Evidence continues to mount that anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, due to the rapidly increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, is not only happening, but happening even more rapidly than predicted by previous, cautious scientific estimates, such as the IPCC reports to date, which were based on the less-complete evidence that was available at the time they were drafted.
As Ed Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030, wrote accurately in ArchitectureWeek No. 269, back in 2006:
"We are in a race against time. Global warming, caused by a human-made blanket of greenhouse gasses — mainly carbon dioxide — that surrounds the earth and traps in heat, is well underway. If allowed to intensify over the coming years, it will seriously threaten our planet...
"The scientific consensus is that we must limit the rise in global average surface temperature to less than 2 degrees Centigrade (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels to avoid disastrous effects.
"At a 2-degree C. increase, it is likely that millions of people will be displaced from their homes. Food production will decline, rivers will become too warm for trout and salmon, weather will become more extreme, sea level will rise and inundate coastal areas, the world's coral reefs — home to 25 percent of all marine species — will be destroyed, a quarter of all plant and animal species on earth will become extinct, and the Greenland ice sheet will begin to melt away."
Since that summary of the situation in 2006, and since the publication of the historic, and still most-recent IPCC Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, further scientific research shows our current actual planetary course of behavior as creating emissions equal to or worse than the worst-case A1Fl scenario used in the projections for that IPCC report.
Many good sources publish regular updates of emerging climate science. Some of these sources are included in the realtime information stream at the ArchitectureWeek blog center, for people who'd like to keep up on a regular basis.
One useful review of recent climate science findings is An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces, published at Climate Progress, the outstanding climate science and policy blog edited by Joe Romm.
In summary, global climate change is real, and the projected outcomes are generally looking worse and worse as projected impacts are refined and detailed through ongoing research.
Today, there is no more scientific evidence to support climate change delay and denial than there is scientific evidence to support Biblical creation, in preference to Darwinian evolution, as the means of creation of species.
Rapid climate change is a reality, and within the scope of basic care for health and safety, it has become a clear and present responsibility for professionals in architecture, engineering, construction, and real estate to respond appropriately.
How Fast is Rapid?
While the Earth is a small planet for an unconstrained global industrial civilization, and for seven going on nine billion people, it is still big relative to individual human beings, both in distance (ever walk across a continent?) and in time. While we rarely live as long as 100 years, many trees naturally live 1000 years, and many forests naturally live for tens of thousands of years.
In terms of day-to-day human perception, shockingly rapid changes in the Earth system can appear to be quite stately — in fact, imperceptible.
Much as we can't see the day-to-day growth of a large Douglas fir, or tell the difference in its size walking by from one year to the next — yet we can certainly measure change in the tree with instruments and records, as its size increases gradually over a period of years — similarly, the pace of rapid climate change is not something we can see day to day.
Precise instruments and accurate statistics are simply required to see the ongoing trends in increasing average temperature, rising sea levels, and shifting patterns of precipitation.
"Rapid" in rapid climate change means rapid in Earth's terms. In fact, the scientific evidence shows that anthropogenic climate change is happening faster than any transition seen in the fossil record of life on Earth.
In several dimensions, such as the rate of extinctions — hard as it may be to grasp — what our global industrial system is doing right now is a more extreme and faster-moving disaster, worldwide, than the crash of an asteroid into our planet that is associated with the end of the great dinosaurs.
Yet our collective greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing, year on year. We have not yet started to substantively change.2
Somewhere around the level of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth's atmosphere — perhaps plus or minus as many as 100 parts per million — the best evidence suggests that multiple parts of the climate and biosphere system may cross tipping points that unlock releases of additional ancient stored carbon, such as from carbon-rich Arctic bogs, currently frozen year-round.
Crossing these tipping points will lock in continuing rapid climate change for centuries to come. That risk alone is ethically unacceptable.
Yet, with CO2 levels already well above 350 ppm (reaching 394 ppm in June, 2011, at the Mauna Loa monitoring station), virtually all climatologists are "now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization."3
Much of the public discussion of carbon-emissions reduction goals over the last decade has focused on annual turnover, and the need to reduce this turnover each year. The very useful "climate stabilization wedges" approach is based on a sheaf of correlated strategies, working in parallel over time, each of which achieves a few percent of emissions reductions annually within its own scope, so that all the wedges together provide the needed 5% annual emissions reductions overall for the entire world system.4
It is valuable to notice in passing that the compounding of reductions over time works in the inverse compared to the compounding of interest. As interest accumulates over time (perhaps in some different economy than many are seeing now), each year the percent growth applies to a slightly larger base amount, so the growth effectively increases.
In contrast, as emissions reductions accumulate over time, each year the percent reduction applies to a smaller base amount, so the savings effectively decrease over time. Add to that the natural and appropriate tendency to seek savings first among the low-hanging fruit, and one needs a surprisingly large annual rate of emissions reductions to achieve a distant low target.
Facing a Total Carbon Budget
If budgeting for annual carbon flow reductions is analogous to a cash flow budget, the other way to think about carbon budgeting is analogous to a capital budget.
In this case, the remaining resiliency of the Earth system gives us an endowment of a certain total amount of CO2 it is likely to be able to absorb over the next few decades.
If we put out more CO2 than that — if we spend our endowment of carbon resiliency down to nothing, and beyond — then we go broke, carbon bankrupt, and the result is crossing tipping points, and thousands of years of torture for the planet and for the children of our children.
"Research by the Potsdam Institute calculates that to reduce the chance of exceeding 2°C warming to 20%, the global carbon budget for 2000-2050 is 886 gigatons of CO2 (GtCO2)."5
However, we've been burning carbon stocks profligately for more than ten years of that budget period already. Subtracting emissions already put out during 2000 to 2010, the remaining total budget of carbon-emissions equivalents for the remaining 40 years, to 2050, is estimated at 565 GtCO2.
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