Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Carbon Group Post 1: Why Climate Change Matters

Structural Materials 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 technical report.

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 2).

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).

One Response so far.

  1. Rob Field says:

    I'm also interested in how these predictions impact the basis for return intervals for environmental loading like wind, etc.

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