On Climate Change and Hope

Despite rising carbon dioxide emissions, we can still tackle global warming.

The design profession, in its many guises, is resolutely optimistic. For a designer, no challenge is so large that he or she can’t develop a solution that will both overcome it and enhance the human experience.

Yet, given the recent onslaught of disheartening news regarding climate change, maintaining such optimism becomes something of a daily test. First, in August of last year, there was the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article penned by 16 climate scientists warning that we’re much closer than previously thought to achieving the “hothouse” trajectory — i.e., a warming of 4 or 5 degrees Celsius — which poses “serious challenges for the viability of human societies.” That was followed in October by the much publicized United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report stating that at our current rate of warming we could potentially be just 12 years away from hitting the tipping point — 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — that would trigger the most horrific aspects of climate change. We can now add to that litany of bad news this nugget from The New York Times: “America’s carbon dioxide emissions rose by 3.4 percent in 2018, the biggest increase in eight years.”

It would now seem that the alchemy required to turn our dire situation into a golden outcome has grown substantially more complicated. Yet the big leaps on a number of fronts regarding climate change enable us to maintain at least some optimism.

For example, as recently reported in Forbes, more than 100 cities across the globe get at least 70 percent of their energy from renewables, and more than 40 operate on 100 percent renewable electricity. Scores more cities are working toward similar goals. At the building scale, technological and legislative developments have made on-site electrical generation easier and cleaner, not to mention more efficient and affordable.

Also, the recent push for low-carbon materials has resulted in everything from cement that’s 30 percent less carbon intensive than the current standard to plastic that converts carbon into a reinforcing material. These products provide a glimpse into the kinds of innovations our industry will need to make a true impact in the face of climate change.

On the urban planning front, a return to classic planning principles, such as walkability and mixing uses, combined with a focus on transit-oriented design, have shown how a car-free lifestyle can be not only attainable but also desirable. And in many places that have embraced such principles, the adaptive reuse of historical industrial buildings has led to character-filled spaces that were constructed using less carbon-intensive methods than those employed in the construction of new buildings.

Furthermore, cities are slowly shifting their views on their relationship to nature and choosing to see themselves as part of a larger ecological system rather than as separate from — and, in some instances, bulwarks against — the natural world. This has resulted in forays into biophilic design in places such as Oslo, Portland, and Singapore.

Yet these efforts — and those of others who, like us, shape the built environment — do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of a larger program — one that has yet to truly get underway. To enact the large-scale change that is needed to ward off the worst of global warming, unprecedented policy changes will have to be enacted by a majority of the world’s governments. In a paper recently published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers found that there is a 64 percent chance of staying below the warming threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius if we immediately phase out all fossil fuels. Such a measure seems highly unlikely given the staggering effort of political will and economic restructuring that it requires of almost all national governments. But it demonstrates that the math is still, technically, in our favor, and there is still reason to be optimistic — for now.

Rives Taylor is Gensler’s Firmwide Director of Design Resilience who helps lead the firm’s sustainable design practice. In his spare time, he lectures as an adjunct professor at the University of Houston and serves as a visiting professor at Rice University, teaching architecture and sustainable design. Currently he’s working with the city of Houston and other cities to develop more livable neighborhoods and sustainable water management strategies that support growing urban areas. Contact him at .
Brenden Jackson 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 .