The immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is affording little time to think about the big picture. With neighborhoods underwater, toppled trees lining the streets, the stock exchange locked, and the dependable New York public transportation closed indefinitely; most people don’t have time to worry about the lasting impacts of this storm.
But when the worst hurricane since the 1800’s hits the north east coast only one year after a tropical storm swept across the same unlikely area, people begin to take notice. Governor Cuomo may have offered the most poignant sentiment: “Anyone who thinks that there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality. We have a new reality, and old infrastructures and old systems.”
Obviously, this “new reality” comes as little surprise to climatologists, who have understood for two decades that the rising temperature of the earth will bring on more extreme weather, more often. While scientists are hesitant to contribute any single event solely to climate change, the idea that storms like this will become more frequent and intense is hard to imagine for many in the northeast. Although the debate still rages in political circles about the reality of global warming, the laws that govern the climate tend not to care. Fortunately, those who have recognized the threat of climate change have set out to reduce our carbon emissions, so that we may avoid the worst of these disasters in the future.
The construction industry has made strides in implementing ‘green’ practices that reduce the energy, water and material consumption that contribute global warming. Given that a newly constructed building will be around for over 50 years, voluntary programs like the USGBC’s LEED Certification, and stricter building codes such as the International Green Construction Code (IGCC) are important parts of any comprehensive strategy to avert climate disaster.
Still, when we realize that there is around a 20-year lag in the warming from the emissions we release today, that Hurricane Sandy was intensified by energy we used in the 80’s and 90’s, we must accept that we are already locked-in for similar events in the future. That is why we may have to consider “climate adaptability” as one of the pillars of green buildings going forward. There is no doubt that this idea will be tough to swallow for many who have dedicated their lives to the preventative solution of reducing emissions. However, when this “new reality” sets in, and we realize that the most efficient building is only as good as its ability to withstand the extreme weather destined for our future, we may have to tweak what ‘sustainable design’ means to us.
Accepting that climate adaptability must be part of the equation should not be seen as accepting defeat, it is the same as accepting the hard truth that climate change is real, serious and a significant factor in the future of the world as we know it. This does not mean that Hurricane Sandy should not be a wakeup call to the public and our political leaders, as prevention is still the best course of action (for every $1 not invested in avoiding carbon emissions before 2020, $4.30 will have to be spent to adapt or mitigate global warming after 2020).
Building codes in Florida already require that buildings be built to withstand hurricane force winds and flying debris, just as coastal towns already require buildings be built to withstand storm surges. As the last public comment period before LEED V4 winds down, the USGBC should consider awarding points for climate adaptability in areas that are facing new threats from climate change. Of course, these efforts will have to be combined with large scale public infrastructure projects as well as a renewed commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For those that are worried about the economic impacts of reducing our emissions and adding adaptability measures today to tackle threats down the road, take a look at New York’s flooded downtown, the starving corn crops in the Midwest or the burnt forests of Colorado and try to fathom the economic impacts of doing nothing.