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01.04.2013
Editorial> Climate Change & The Built Environment
William Menking appeals to architects to take action on global climate change.
New York City Wreckage from Hurricane Sandy.
David Sundberg/ESTO

In late July an eminent group of scientists warned a congressional committee that climate change was indeed having a powerful impact on our environment. It should not be surprising that a group of scientists would appear before a hearing of the Committee on the Environment and Public Works. But in fact this was the first time in nearly two years that researchers studying climate change had appeared before the group.

The last time scientists had been invited to the committee was when President Obama was first elected, a time when there was optimism that climate change would finally be addressed. But despite repeated attempts by Democrats to address climate change the Republican-controlled committee had blocked any attempt to debate the issue. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe claimed on the Senate floor on August 1 that global warming was “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” despite his home state’s record-breaking heat wave the month before. Inhofe crowed that the “global warming movement has completely collapsed.”

So in the wake of the devastation caused by tropical storm Sandy it was a revelation to finally hear a politician make the link between global warming and climate change and even more gratifying that it was New York’s own Governor Andrew Cuomo who said, “climate change is a reality. Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable, and there's only so long you can say, ‘This is once in a lifetime, and it's not going to happen again.’” Finally we have a young ambitious politician ready to admit the obvious—I may be ready to sign on for his presidential candidacy. The dangerous reality of climate change should be evident to anyone reading the news for the past 10 years but we still have groups like the Heartland Institute in Chicago trying to discredit scientific claims about global warming. In fact, Heartland officials attacked Cuomo, accusing him of exploiting tragedy to perpetuate a lie. “Leave it to global warming alarmists to exploit the innocent victims of a human tragedy like Hurricane Sandy to spread the laughably false notion that global warming caused the storm,” wrote James Taylor, a senior fellow for environment policy at Heartland.

The AIA has been out front since at least 2005 making an argument about the impact of buildings on our energy consumption and linking green house gas emissions from construction and building operations. But after Sandy and scores of other extreme weather conditions it is time for architects as a profession and as citizens to stop worrying about what global warming skeptics say and make an even stronger case for action. Architects are among the very few professions that could most directly make the case for the damage being done to our environment. Buildings account for 48 percent of energy consumption in the US and, according to the AIA, “generate far more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector of the economy including automobiles.” It is time to admit that energy consumption needs to be made a direct part of our design process.

William Menking