and Global Climate: Why Climate Change Matters
The Carbon Task Group of the Structural Engineering
Institute’s Sustainability Committee has spent years studying the ways
structural materials and systems affect climate change. This is the first of a
planned series of blog posts on topics discussed in depth in our forthcoming
Why should we care about climate change? How bad could it
be? Warmer winters will be nice, right?
We all know what’s happening. Among other things, people are
burning a lot of fossil fuels—coal, oil, gas—sending unprecedented quantities
of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These
heat-trapping gases are raising the temperature of our air and oceans, and
increasing the ocean’s acidity. Polar ice is melting, contributing to sea level
rise. Some regions are experiencing more intense storms and more frequent
droughts. Coral reefs are dying.
But so what, we can adapt, you might think. Well, maybe, but it would not be
easy and the risks are great.
Even if you don’t live by the ocean or in a place where
water shortages may become commonplace, there’s a lot to worry about. Climate
change promises to be politically destabilizing, as millions of people find
their homes inundated or food supplies threatened. They will need to resettle,
increasing the flow of refugees. Political instability will lead to conflict,
and yet more refugees. The Pentagon considers climate change a major risk, an “accelerant
of instability” and a “threat multiplier.” We will all be affected.
And changes are coming fast. A recent study
found that the United States is likely to reach an average temperature increase
of at least 2°C by 2035, nearly
15 years earlier than the prediction for the globe as a whole, and that there’s
at least a 50-50 chance that the northeast could reach this dubious milestone
in only 10 years (Figure 1). Coastal cities such as Boston are talking about
taking extreme measures to control advancing seas, such as constructing a four-mile-long,
20-foot high, barrier
wall around the harbor to protect the low-lying areas of the city (Figure
But the most unsettling changes are not inevitable. We still
have a short amount of time to mitigate such worst-case outcomes, and
structural engineers have a key role to play. We will explore what we can do in
coming blog posts, so stay tuned.
Figure 1 shows the range of climate model predictions for
the timing of temperature increases in the northeastern United States, the
United States as a whole, and the world as a whole. The vertical axis
represents the percentage of climate models that predict a given temperature
will be reached by a given year.
Figure 2 shows a proposed 4-mile-long barrier wall to
protect the city of Boston (Boston Globe, 17 February 2017).
The SEI Sustainability Committee website welcomes all design professionals. The goal of our website is to provide information relevant to sustainability in structural engineering, promote discussion of sustainable design topics in structural engineering, and serve as a link between organizations and efforts. Visitors may view the current efforts of the committee and refer to past publications.
View our home page at http://www.seisustainability.org/