A Global Warming Tipping Point, Amplifying Feedbacks, and Building Codes

“Man has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.”

Dr. Albert Schweitzer

“Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature …
but man is a part of nature and this war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”

Rachel Carson

Many of us in the building professions find ourselves chafing at what sometimes seems to be an unnecessary or arbitrary requirement in our building codes, but the truth of the matter is that our codes represent over a hundred years of priceless “tribal knowledge” focused on keeping us and the built environment safe and healthy. It’s no accident then that our national building codes have also evolved to include requirements for energy efficiency. However, in today’s perspective, the code development and adoption process has three major problems:

  1. Codes are reactive and change comes slowly and often only in the face of a serious problem and/or cases of mortality. A child dies and we change the requirements for deck railing. Someone is killed in a fire and we change fire rating requirement for a door or wall. We stand in line to buy gas in the 70’s and suddenly we get religion about insulation. As a result, the codes are especially ineffective for a slow moving crisis like global warming.
  2. Codes changes are political. The process itself is public, open, more or less dominated by building code officials, and attempts are made to keep vested interests from unduly influencing the process. However, the actual code development and change process looks and feels a lot like our state and national legislative process with corporations hiring paid consultants and lobbyists in an attempt to add or protect code language that supports their bottom line. In essence, our codes have become the sum of all lobbyists.
  3. Local jurisdiction’s are often slow to adopt the latest changes, and may not even bother to adopt the energy code or subject to their own politics, dumb down the codes to cater to local vested interests.

I was in the middle of writing about our building codes when the story broke on a joint study by NASA and Columbia University that concluded that we may be reaching a global warming point of no return, a “tipping point” in as little as ten years. The cause of this acceleration can be observed now in amplifying feedbacks such as disappearing sea ice and melting tundra. According to the report, “these feedbacks all produce more heat, … reinforcing each other, leading to evermore thawing … and more releases of natural greenhouse gases (including CO2 and methane) in a viciously accelerating circle”.

Which brings me back to building codes. Buildings in the U.S. account for over 50% of greenhouse gas emissions, but changing that statistic will require significant changes to codes which evolve very slowly and only respond with any sense of rapidity to a major crisis, not to reports by NASA. I’m sure the response in ten or twenty years from now, when the water is lapping up against the second story windows in Brooklyn will be dramatic, but by then it will be too little, too late and we’ll be too busy building levees and dikes.

So it will take a tangible crisis of the pocket book like a tax on carbon emissions along with tax incentives on the purchase of products and technology that reduce those emissions to create the national sense of urgency required to keep our heads above water. Oh yeah … a little leadership at the national level would help as well. Something on the order of the Apollo Program, Manhattan Project, and WWII Victory Garden campaign combined. Given that we have another two years left with the current administration, that means we’ll only have 8 years to get our act together before NASA’s predicted tipping point.

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