Fellow architects, can we talk? This is gonna hurt, but it needs saying. Were I a poet, I’d write, The end is nigh, and we are why. I’m no bard, though, so I’ll put it this way: Most of us suspect anthropogenic climate change will lead to civilization’s end. Some architects deny the science (“The climate is always changing!”), while others ignore the obvious (denial is a good coping mechanism), but buried within the folds of all angst-addled designer brains lies the fear that today’s toddlers could be the last of us.
I’ll pause here to let the weight of that thought depress you.
You can get up now. I let the elephant out of the room so that we can get down to business. We have a lot of work to do. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the deadline to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 50% is 11 years from now. Our gut tells us we are not going to beat that doomsday clock, for lots of reasons, greed and politics high among them. What we can’t stomach, though, is the realization that our profession is more to blame for global warming than capitalism, Big Oil, or Washington. Buildings are the largest single source of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas offender. Two generations of architects toying with environmental protection, energy and water conservation, sustainability, and resiliency have done little to ward off the age of extinction.
Yes, I know architects touch only a fraction of new buildings, and that green buildings are a thing. I also understand resistance from clients can torpedo Big Ideas. None of that gets us off the hook. Architects are the construction community’s leaders; builders take their cues from us. A good architect is persuasive, and the greatest among us can sell anything to anyone. Admit it: Over the last 50 years, we’ve had the power to move the built environment from carbon positive to carbon net zero. We didn’t, though, and the result of our failure is disappearing Arctic ice, global rainforests afire, and a melting Antarctica. Building a carbon-zero/carbon-negative society within the next 30 years will take a World War II–scale mobilization vision that’s simply not on the horizon.