What Hurricane Sandy teaches us about our built environment
The profession of Design is about to drastically change. If you're an architect, engineer, planner or builder, the way you build is about to undergo some radical new transformations.
2012 is on track to become the warmest year on record, with some 40,000 temperature records broken in the United States this year alone. In addition, Arctic sea ice melted to a record low this year, further adding to a grim list of milestones and warning signs that most people are ignoring.
Both candidates running for President failed to once mention Climate Change during the 4-1/2 hours of debates. This is the first time since 1984 that has happened, and a sign that the carnival that has become our election process is unable to focus on what is truly important.
In short, President Obama admits climate change is real and raised minimum fuel efficiency standards in August 2012. Governor Romney isn't sure if climate change is manmade or not, and changes his views on whether it exists at all. His energy policy advisor is oil baron Harold Hamm, so he wants to eliminate foreign oil, pushing for "North American" sources of oil. Romney stated "there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue – on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk – and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community."
[For the record, you can view President Obama's stance on Climate Change here;
Governor Romney's stance here.]
In spite of this silence, most environmentalists have been waiting for a tragedy to occur to wake up our policy makers. I tend to think it follows Winston Churchill's famous indictment of Americans: "I always count on Americans to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted every other possible option."
Hurricane Sandy, the storm that has crippled New York and Philadelphia, (and leveled Atlantic City), has left our largest cities without power, transportation and most fundamental services. Some in the media have called it a "Frankenstorm" which may be appropriate both because it hit on Halloween week and given how unprecedented and powerful it is. But more importantly, it is a sign of storms to come and a brutal introduction to what is now the "new normal."
Hurricane Sandy highlights the extreme vulnerability of our transportation and electricity infrastructure. To millions, climate change suddenly just became very real and very expensive. The Atlantic has a wonderful map showing the (still) flooded areas of New York as a grim predictor of things to come.
With economic losses of up to $20 billion, Hurricane Sandy is the disaster that could finally wake everyone up from their stupor. This would make it the costliest hurricane to ever hit the Northeast, and perhaps what is needed to change our policies to address our climate. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, power outages in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have "shattered records" with over 3 million without power.
In New York City, their transit system carrying 5.2 million passengers a day and essential to the city's economy is flooded. The Wall Street Journal reported on the corrosive effect of flooding salt water on subway tracks and tunnels. Thanks to an already rising water table, the MTA's 300 pumping rooms daily remove around 13 million gallons of water from their network of tunnels, and that's on a dry day. The flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy could take up to four days to to pump out, according to MTA officials.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday morning that the city and the state may have to consider building a levee to protect lower Manhattan, where waters rose 10 feet above flood stage. "It is something we’re going to have to start thinking about." Mr. Cuomo said. "Anyone who thinks that there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality," Mr. Cuomo said. "We have a new reality, and old infrastructures and old systems."
A week before the Hurricane, the Center for Biological Diversity awarded their "Rubber Dodo" award to Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe.
This award is given annually to those who have done the most to drive endangered species extinct. The Oklahoma Republican has done more to push the "anti-science" climate denial than any other member of Congress. Kierán Suckling, the Center’s executive director said, "Senator Inhofe gets the 2012 Rubber Dodo Award for being at the vanguard of the retrograde climate-denier movement." Suckling continued, "Deniers like Inhofe, in positions of leadership, are dooming future generations of people to a far more difficult world."
Just this past July, Bill McKibben of 350.org wrote an incredible piece in Rolling Stone highlighting that it way already be too late. Scientists agree that 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide is the limit we can release into the atmosphere. Yet, the oil in reserves (already sucked out of the ground and slated for burning) will pump 2,795 gigatons into your air, crushing the limit by almost five times what is acceptable. Even if we could magically stop this fuel from being consumed, it would send shockwaves throughout the economy. As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times puts it, "We can either have a hard decade or a bad century."
Architects, designers and planners can no longer sit by and think this does not apply to them. We need to redesign and rebuild our infrastructure. This is no longer a matter of simply adapting to a warmer planet. Hurricane Sandy has shown we must re-engineer the country, and do it right away. For a glimpse of the future of the profession, take a look at the incredible work of Architecture for Humanity (and donate or volunteer while you're there.)