Building For the Climate Apocalypse

First 2000, and now 2012: Years in which people think the world might possibly end.

The world probably won’t end with a bang, but might just crumble beneath the accumulated consequences of our actions.

Meanwhile, American politicians’ opinions of science, especially climate science, are at an alarming low.  Sometimes TV makes me wonder if there are people who think a 2012 apocalypse is more plausible than global warming.

Watching GOP candidates in debate is a bittersweet experience.  On one hand, the stupid things they occasionally blurt out invariably wind up on YouTube for my amusement.

You-becky-becky becky-becky-stan-stan, anyone?

On the other hand, these guys have a fair shot at becoming arguably the most powerful person in the world.   That’s where the bitter comes in.  They speak in a  sober, defiantly ignorant voice, with the seeming expectation that what they don’t know doesn’t matter.

Sometimes it does matter (a combination of egregious dumbness and sexual sketchiness shamed Cain off the stage) but what scares me is when it doesn’t.

Take Rick Santorum, for example.  Here’s a short excerpt and transcript from a Q&A session he did in New Hampshire last week.

Someone asked how he integrated recent findings of climate change into his policies.  He waved away the whole issue by using scientists, icebergs, and tail-wagging dogs in a meandering metaphor to demonstrate why climate science is not worth considering.

And when he was done talking, people clapped!  Kind of half-heartedly, but still! That stopped The only thing more frightening than ignorance is ignorance with power.

Basically, he argued that there are so many factors so we can’t know for sure what’s causing any changes.  Nevermind that just about anybody with a lick of sense agrees that we’re making a lot of CO2, which gets stuck in the atmosphere.

Nevermind that nobody knows the perfect method for, oh, say, oil mining, but they rough through it anyway because the result is valuable.  Not knowing something doesn’t mean that we should give up; it means we should devote more resources toward finding the answer.  Santorum using ambiguity as a reason to disregard the question only draws attention to how his party has utterly failed at giving climate science the support it needs.

Around Christmas, a short piece showed up in the New York Times about how climate science is stagnating, despite 2011 being one of the most extreme weather years on record.

In May of 2011, 100% of Texas was abnormally dry.  48% was officially in exceptional drought conditions–that’s even more extreme than “extreme drought.”

At the other extreme, New Jersey had an extreme winter: 50.7 inches (more than four feet) fell in my hometown of New Brunswick.  I’ve lived there for 15 years but can count the white Christmases we’ve had on one hand.

These are quick and dirty examples of extreme weather conditions with immediate effects at home.  Objective truths about global warming will emerge as trends in data analysis performed by climate scientists, and I’d like these truths to emerge before they show up as three feet of snow on my car every other week.

It’s true that there are hundreds of factors that contribute to climate change, but it’s stubbornly naive to claim as Santorum does that CO2, as a byproduct of industrial processes, is not the primary actor.  It’s true that climate science and efforts to change energy use in major industries can incur significant costs, but so can bad weather.  The final cost of this year’s weather extremes is still being tallied, but will likely surpass $50 million.  That’s in comparison to a typical year that costs the U.S. $3 or $4 billion.

Making sense of these changing weather patterns will require scientists to analyze large amounts of data, integrating trends over years and millions of square miles.  They need personnel, and concerted support from the Federal government, not half-assed pooh-poohing from a man who could well become President.

The GOP in general sets a bad example by blocking efforts to organize and increase funding for climate research initiatives.  Republicans overwhelmingly deny the general consensus on global warming,  disparaging it instead as a “propaganda attempt” by the Obama administration.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy still finance climate research, but many scientists find that there’s not enough to go around.

This research also has valuable practical applications.  Our company, for example, depends on climate data to calculate things like insulation thickness, heating and cooling loads, and gutter sizes.  We’re a green contractor, so energy efficiency is more crucial to our calculations, but every building depends on this information being accurate.  The more efficient our homes, the more money clients save.

Global change affects everyone, not just Americans, so hopefully other governments will have more sense than Congress and fund this crucial research.   Passive houses, for example, have greater momentum in Europe than in the U.S., so more resources are available to passive builders and passive houses are cheaper to build.

And what does all this have to do with Eco Brooklyn, beyond normal climate calculations?  As green contractors, we obviously take the local environment of each home into consideration when designing a plan for energy efficiency.  Compare that with, say, a large non-green building company like Toll Brothers, who may build the same exact house in Texas as in Nebraska.

Now that the environment is hitting higher record temperatures and precipitation levels than ever, Eco Brooklyn is venturing into what we call “Survival Building.”

We’ve started taking examples from extreme climates and integrating them into New York’s brownstones, in order to prepare them against heat waves, snap freezes, and flash floods.  We take inspiration from the “Earthship” and “Passive House” movements, which focus on installing tight insulation and maximizing solar gain to reduce heating and cooling needs.  These homes remain naturally cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  We put up a blog post recently that explains these concepts in detail.

Our our buildings consider rainwater runoff seriously.  We build green roofs, dry wells, rain gardens, and other water harvesting systems to reduce flooding.

We use clay walls in our houses that work like adobe walls in Pueblo architecture.  If they can endure the New Mexico heat, they can handle New York heat waves, with the benefit of retaining heat in winter.  Our passive houses are sealed tight against energy loss, but the envelope also protects against extreme wind or rain.

Eco Brooklyn’s brownstones are green fortresses.

So even if we see the beginnings of a climate apocalypse in 2012, we’ll be ready, and if Santorum gets elected, at least we’ll be insulated against his hot air.

About the author: Yi Deng

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