Photo by Jaymantri, Pexels
Photo by Jaymantri, Pexels
Ice and snow on a body of water.

What the Math Behind Climate Change Is Telling Us

A Grim Calculus

Math has a cold disregard for human desires. It illuminates in ways that we find uncomfortable and carries a weighty and inescapable objectivity. And when it comes to the math regarding our attempts to halt climate change, the numbers indicate that we’re in for quite a jolt.

According to a summary of a Global Carbon Project report appearing in The Washington Post, worldwide carbon emissions increased by 1.6 percent in 2017. Scientists are projecting the 2018 rise to be 2.7 percent.

It seems that there is a growing gap between countries’ action pledges and their measures to limit global warming. From 2017 to 2018, carbon emissions grew by a projected 2.5 percent in the U.S., 4.7 percent in China, and 6.3 percent in India. In the European Union, emissions shrank by 0.7 percent.

In response to the U.N. Environment Program's November 27th Emissions Gap report, the Washington Post also pointed out that much of that surge is due to our increasing reliance on petroleum; the 4.2 billion gallons of oil the world now burns through daily represents a 2 percent upswing compared to the previous year, according to the UNEP. On a related and perhaps unsurprising note, the U.S. automobile market has ballooned to the point where “in 2016 there were nearly 12 million more cars with internal combustion engines emitting greenhouse gases than there were in 2008,” according to the Post. In short, the numbers are heading in the wrong direction in a host of critical categories. That makes for astoundingly long odds when it comes to containing global warming. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences has said that our current trajectory presents “serious challenges for the viability of human societies.”

Given this heaping dose of reality, the question for our industry becomes: how do you approach sustainability design in a world where arresting climate change no longer seems possible?

Perhaps we start by changing our language. Sustainability implies a continuance; it speaks to notions of maintaining the current set of conditions. That now appears to be a virtual impossibility. We’re entering a phase in which we must think about enduring the shock of climate change. And that necessitates a shift to resilience as the key term — and, by extension, philosophy — to use when addressing how design impacts and is impacted by the natural world.

That doesn’t mean that we give up on finding ways to remove carbon from our atmosphere. Certainly, there is still tremendous value in striving toward design that not only achieves net-zero energy use but goes beyond it to reach a net-positive energy state. As John Sterman, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explained in the Post UNEP article, “If you’re driving on a highway and the car in front of you stops short, and you slam on [the] brakes and realize that you’re going to hit the guy no matter what, that’s not the time to take your foot off the brake.”

But, surely, our net-positive efforts will have to be coupled with resilient design that addresses climate change’s more pernicious outcomes, such as severe coastal flooding, more frequent and fierce storms, increasingly brutal wildfires, and witheringly extreme inland drought. In other words, we’re talking about design that imagines the worst-case climate-disaster scenarios for a locale, and then strives to ensure building integrity and functionality.

That could very well necessitate some hard conversations with clients. But as Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, said, “I think we have kind of reached the limit. When we are facing the limit, I think we need to come up with something more creative, more ambitious, stronger and bolder.”

Brenden Jackson
Brenden is a writer and editor based in Gensler’s Washington, DC, office. Though he writes extensively about architecture and interior design, he is especially interested in issues tied to urbanism — from the ways that planning and design shape individual urban experiences to the challenges that cities face on social and environmental issues. Contact him at .