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Climate Change

What is climate change, its effects and causes?

Patrick Chopson avatar
Written by Patrick Chopson
Updated over a week ago

Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. It’s the longer-term trend that differentiates climate change from natural weather variability. This article will summarize the key takeaways of climate change's impact on the AEC industry. See here for a complete description of what is going on right now.

A triptych image showing from left to right: a firefighter in front of a fire; dry, cracked ground; and a hurricane near Florida, U.S.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which includes more than 1,300 scientists from the United States and other countries, forecasts a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. It will have numerous effects like:

  • Sea level rise 0.3 - 2.4 m (1-8 feet) by 2100

  • Hurricanes becoming stronger and more intense

  • The Arctic is likely to become ice-free

  • More droughts and heatwaves

  • Changes in precipitation patterns

  • Frost-free season (and growing season) lengthening

The effects of climate can be wide-ranging, affecting lives and economies across the globe. Radical action against climate change is needed in the next decade, termed the ‘Decade of Action’, if we are to stall the disastrous impacts of a spike in global temperatures. As the single largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, the building industry has a significant role in shaping the climate crisis. In the same line, buildings offer some of the most cost-efficient ways of reducing carbon emissions and stalling climate change, through energy efficiency and an increased reliance on renewable energy sources.

chart, line chart

Below is the current track we are on. If we do not take action the general collapse of civilization begins sometime between 2030 and 2040. This is based on an updated reassessment of the Limits of Growth computer model that has accurately predicted these trends since it was developed in the 1970s.

This graph shows that BAU2 is already happening with 50% loss of marine life since 1950s.

chart, line chart

The Causes

The earth has gone through warming and cooling phases in the past, long before humans were around. Forces that can contribute to climate change include the sun’s intensity, volcanic eruptions, and changes in naturally occurring greenhouse gas concentrations. But records indicate that today’s climatic warming—particularly that has occurred since the mid-20th century—is happening at a much faster rate than ever before, and it can’t be explained by natural causes alone. Human activities (primarily the burning of fossil fuels) have fundamentally increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere, causing global warming and in turn warming the planet.

According to the UN Environment Program, the construction and operation of buildings account for 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions annually. In New York City, buildings emit 70% of GHGs, requiring immediate demand for stringent updates to design and construction regulations. In the coming decade, we need to radically decarbonize the industry if we are to avoid the disastrous consequences of crossing the 1.5°C threshold.

Mitigation Strategies

Many climate change solutions can deliver economic benefits while improving our lives and protecting the environment. We also have global agreements to guide progress, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement. Three broad categories of action are: cutting emissions, adapting to climate impacts and financing required adjustments.

By building green, we can reduce the impact our buildings have on contributing to climate change while also building resilience into our homes and communities. Develop and implement sustainability standards that address both energy and water efficiency. Use technologies and other measures like green roofs or wastewater heat recovery systems to address water efficiency and energy efficiency. Use water efficient fittings to reduce water usage of buildings.

What can the AEC industry do about it?

Industry stakeholders have different but equally important roles to play in combating the climate crisis. Architects can join the AIA 2030 Commitment, reduce energy consumption through design, use low-carbon materials, and adopt renewable energy systems. Contractors and construction managers can identify low-carbon alternatives to fulfill material specifications, adopt low-pollution construction methods that are reliant on renewable energy and prefabrication, and utilize building information modeling for error-free construction. Owners drive demand for green buildings, and they must capitalize on the monetary benefits of sustainability, choose to retrofit existing properties rather than build new ones, and invest in smart technology to reduce operational energy consumption. Read more about the building industry’s role in combating climate change in our e-book. (‘Architects vs Contractors vs Owners: Who can most impact climate change?’) All green building rating systems focus on reducing the contribution of buildings to climate change. LEED-certified buildings see a significant reduction in their greenhouse gas emissions over their entire lifecycle, as 35/100 points in LEED v4 are targeted towards mitigating climate change. The USGBC is also a partner in the Advancing Net Zero program, developing assessment methods for projects that demonstrate net zero carbon features. Apart from these, virtually all of USGBC’s platforms and activities have a connection to reducing buildings’ impact on the climate.

If we do our part this is the the Comprehensive Technology (CT) scenario predicted by the Limits of Growth model. As you can see it's not great but survivable.


What is Global Warming?
Global warming is a kind of pollution caused by burning oil, coal, and gas that occurs when carbon dioxide (CO2) and other air pollutants collect in the atmosphere and absorb sunlight and solar radiation that have bounced off the earth’s surface. Normally this radiation would escape into space, but these pollutants, which can last for years to centuries in the atmosphere, trap the heat and cause the planet to get hotter. These heat-trapping pollutants—specifically carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, water vapor, and synthetic fluorinated gases—are known as greenhouse gases, and their impact is called the greenhouse effect.

Happy Modeling!

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