On, Nov. 23, 2018, the federal government released its latest National Climate Assessment, painting a dire picture of the impacts of climate change on the planet and its inhabitants.
The nearly 1,700-page report, which was produced by 13 federal agencies, finds that virtually every aspect of life will be impacted by the changing climate - and that many of those impacts are happening already. Exhaustive in scope, the report covers everything from agriculture to health to global trade.
But what are the biggest impacts and consequences for the built environment?
The report touches frequently upon buildings, infrastructure and communities – particularly urban areas. And while much of the news is not good, there are bright spots.
Here are eight takeaways from the report and its reception about the intersection of climate change and the built environment.
1. Energy efficiency works – to a point.
The report finds that energy efficiency “has been remarkably successful over several decades in helping control energy costs to homes, buildings, and industry, while also contributing to enhanced resilience through reduced energy demand.” It cites numerous steps that have helped spur increases in energy efficiency and overall resilience, including tax and other financial incentives, building energy codes and appliance and equipment standards, voluntary actions to improve energy efficiency, and continued growth of the energy efficiency and energy management industry.
While all of this may not be news to the green building industry, having the federal government’s imprimatur on the notion that energy efficiency matters can’t hurt when it comes time to push energy efficiency policies before lawmakers.
That’s the good news. The bad news, according the report, is that continued increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will cause demand to rise with temperatures, despite efficiency gains.
According to the report, “Despite anticipated gains in end use and building and appliance efficiencies, higher temperatures are projected to drive up electricity costs not only by increasing demand but also by reducing the efficiency of power generation and delivery.” Worse, the report predicts that increased demand will require more power generation capacity that will cost residential and commercial ratepayers up to $30 billion per year more by the middle of the century.
2. Urbanization is making things worse.
As the report notes, “Urban areas, where the majority of the U.S. population lives and most consumption occurs, are the source of approximately 80% of North American human-caused GHG emissions, despite only occupying 1%–5% of the land.”
The report states that “urban regions include several characteristics that can influence climate, including construction materials that absorb more heat than vegetation and soils do, impervious cover that minimizes the cooling effect of evapotranspiration, the canyon-like architecture of buildings that tends to trap heat, and heat generation from vehicle and building emissions,” all of which contributes to the urban heat island (UHI) effect.
That said, the report notes that urbanization’s impact on climate is greater regionally, where urbanization is extensive, than on global temperatures.
3. A multitude of design strategies is needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
The report makes clear that there is no one silver bullet to address climate change. In the context of the design and construction of the built environment, it highlights a wide range of tactics that contribute to mitigation and adaptation; these include everything from green roofs and tree canopy cover to urban drainage systems and wetlands restoration.
Beyond specific design solutions, the report notes that “social and institutional changes” also are vital to responding to climate change: “decisions about where to prioritize physical protections, install green infrastructure, locate cooling centers, or route public transportation have differential impacts on urban residents. If urban responses do not address social inequities and listen to the voices of vulnerable populations, they can inadvertently harm low-income and minority residents.”
4. Infrastructure needs to adapt to – and even predict – the future climate . . .
The report highlights the conundrum that, even as the climate changes over time, most built infrastructure is designed to last decades or longer. It finds that “[i]nfrastructure designed for historical climate trends is more vulnerable to future weather extremes and climate change.”
It paints a dark picture of a future where outdated building enclosure designs and cooling technology reduces worker productivity and health; sea level rise corrodes and renders useable major swaths of the road system, pumping stations give out due to increased flooding, and so on. It therefore calls for “[f]orward-looking design and risk management approaches [that] support the achievement of design and investment performance goals.”
5. . . Which means the building industry needs to adapt, too.
The report argues that climate projections are not typically baked into the design and investment of infrastructure or in model building codes, which the report says “tend to be focused on current short-term, extreme weather.” Likewise, it avers that “the incorporation of climate projections is not required in the education or licensing of U.S. design, investment, or appraisal professionals.”
The report concludes that “[i]nvestment and design standards, professional education and licensing, building codes, and zoning that use forward-looking design can protect urban assets and limit investor risk exposure.”
6. Cities are taking the lead, but face huge challenges
The report credits cities with leading efforts to respond to climate change. Pointing out that “urban adaptation and mitigation actions can affect current and projected impacts of climate change and provide near-term benefits,” the report says that a combination of extreme weather, available resources and motivated leadership are spurring cities to act.
These actions include the “mainstream[ing]” of adaptation and mitigation into planning decisions, as well as coordination of diverse municipal departments and policies like building code adoption, green purchasing, zoning modifications and buying out properties in flood plains.
In addition to leading on climate adaption, the report finds that “a growing number of states, cities, and businesses have pursued or deepened initiatives aimed at reducing emissions,” including “at least 455 cities [that] support emissions reductions in the context of global efforts, including 110 with emissions reduction targets.”
Even as cities and states are working to reduce the impacts or climate change, they face a wide array of challenges, including limited funding, coordination challenges between multiple jurisdictions, and pressure to divert attention and resources elsewhere. The report also finds that “[t]he absence of locally specific climate data and a standard methodology for estimating urban GHG emissions poses additional obstacles to urban responses.”
7. The report doesn’t pull punches on the role of leadership.
Considering that the report’s authors are by-and-large employees of the Executive Branch, the head of which has openly dismissed climate change as a hoax, the report makes clear that political will is a vital tool for combatting climate change.
The report states, “Strong leadership and political will are central to addressing these challenges.” It credits the work of state and local policymakers who taken the lead on addressing climate change, specifically citing the fact that numerous cities are taking part in networks like the U.S. Conference of Mayors, ICLEI, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40), and 100 Resilient Cities.
The report does not shy away from citing examples of federal policies that don’t align with the current White House. It highlights the fact that the 2015 Paris climate agreement set a goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”
It then notes, dryly, that last year, “the United States announced its intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.”
In another section, after listing numerous federal policies aimed at reducing GHG emissions, the report concludes by saying: “The [Trump] Administration is currently reviewing many of these measures through the lens of Executive Order 13783, which aims to ease regulatory burdens on ‘the development or use of domestically produced energy resources, with particular attention to oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy resources.’”
8. Don’t expect a paradigm shift on policy – at least in the short term.
Don’t let the report’s unequivocal language and dire warnings fool you: the political road for climate action is straight uphill.
Despite it being released by the federal government and representing the input of multiple federal agencies, not everybody is on board.
For starters the report was released on Black Friday, a day when most Americans are more focused on holiday shopping and turkey leftovers than climate policy. And that was probably intentional: releasing information you want buried on a day when nobody will see it is a time-honored DC tactic.
And while the report’s authors are unequivocal about the impacts of man-made climate change, their boss? Not so much. "I don't believe it," President Trump said of the report.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders added that the report is "not based on facts" but based on "the most extreme modeled scenario, which contradicts long established trends."
While the incoming Democratic House majority is making climate change a major priority come 2019, advancing more than just modest policy items will be difficult in the Senate. Add to that the fact that some of the GOP’s biggest congressional advocates of climate change legislation lost in November, it may be hard overcoming partisan differences in Washington.
Which is why the report’s emphasis on the work happening at the state and municipal levels is the mark. This global crisis may depend on a whole lot of local solutions.
Photo: 147th Attack Wing (Texas Air National Guard)
Eight Takeaways from the National Climate Assessment