Calling All Design Professionals: Time To Respond To The New Climate Report

That question is even more apt now with the publication on Friday, November 23 of the Fourth National Climate Assessment Report: Impacts, Risks and Adaptation in the U.S.  (4th NCA) by 13 Federal U.S. agencies through the White House. Mandated by Congress since 1990, the quadrennial report states in great detail and with clear traceability the consequences of climate change in the U.S. based on differing emissions scenarios through the end of this century. The report uses a “risk-based framing” to ensure that it focuses on issues of high priority to decision-making. And the outcomes are pretty scary, especially in the high emissions scenario. The economic impacts alone should be a wake-up call no matter your politics – $155B damages annually in labor alone by 2090.

So, what’s a design professional to do? The short answer is A LOT and NOW. As much as the 4th NCA Report paints a sober picture of the future by national topics and regions it also shares recommended policies, practices and wonderful case studies that are directly applicable to the design of the built environment and show how much positive impact is possible.

Here’s our edited summary of the top ten most relevant key messages for our community:

-Impacts on Urban Quality of Life: Climate change can exacerbate existing challenges to urban quality of life, including social inequality, aging and deteriorating infrastructure, and stressed ecosystems. Many cities are engaging in creative problem solving to improve quality of life while simultaneously addressing climate change impacts. (Key Message #1, Chapter 11, Built Environment, Urban Systems and Cities)

-Forward-Looking Design for Urban Infrastructure: With its long service life, urban infrastructure must be able to endure a future climate that is different from the past. Forward-looking design informs investment in reliable infrastructure that can withstand ongoing and future climate risks. (Key Message #2, Chapter 11, Built Environment, Urban Systems and Cities)

 -Urban Response to Climate Change: Cities across the United States are leading efforts to respond to climate change. Urban adaptation and mitigation actions can affect current and projected impacts of climate change and provide near-term benefits. (Key Message #4, Chapter 11, Built Environment, Urban Systems and Cities)

 -Climate Change Outpaces Adaptation Planning: Successful adaptation has been hindered by the assumption that climate conditions are and will be similar to those in the past. Incorporating information on current and future climate conditions into design guidelines, standards, policies, and practices would reduce risk and adverse impacts. (Key Message #2, Chapter 28, Reducing Risks through Adaptation Actions)

-Adaptation Entails Iterative Risk Management: Adaptation entails a continuing risk management process; it does not have an end point. With this approach, individuals and organizations of all types assess risks and vulnerabilities from climate and other drivers of change (such as economic, environmental, and societal), take actions to reduce those risks, and learn over time. (Key Message #3, Chapter 28, Reducing Risks through Adaptation Actions)

 -Benefits of Proactive Adaptation Exceed Costs: Proactive adaptation initiatives yield benefits in excess of their costs in the near term, as well as over the long term. (Key Message #4, Chapter 28, Reducing Risks through Adaptation Actions)

 -New Approaches Can Further Reduce Risk: Integrating climate considerations into existing organizational and sectoral policies and practices provides adaptation benefits. Further reduction of the risks from climate change can be achieved by new approaches that create conditions for altering regulatory and policy environments, cultural and community resources, economic and financial systems, technology applications, and ecosystems. (Key Message #5, Chapter 28, Reducing Risks through Adaptation Actions)

 -The Risks of Inaction: In the absence of more significant global mitigation efforts, climate change is projected to impose substantial damages on the U.S. economy, human health, and the environment. Under scenarios with high emissions and limited or no adaptation, annual losses in some sectors are estimated to grow to hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century. It is very likely that some physical and ecological impacts will be irreversible for thousands of years, while others will be permanent. (Key Message #1, Chapter 29, Reducing Risks through Emissions Mitigation)

 -Avoided or Reduced Impacts Due to Mitigation: Many climate change impacts and associated economic damages in the United States can be substantially reduced over the course of the 21st century through global-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, though the magnitude and timing of avoided risks vary by sector and region. The effect of near-term emissions mitigation on reducing risks is expected to become apparent by mid-century and grow substantially thereafter.  (Key Message #3, Chapter 29, Reducing Risks through Emissions Mitigation)

-Interactions Between Mitigation and Adaptation: Interactions between mitigation and adaptation are complex and can lead to benefits, but they also have the potential for adverse consequences. Adaptation can complement mitigation to substantially reduce exposure and vulnerability to climate change in some sectors. This complementarity is especially important given that a certain degree of climate change due to past and present emissions is unavoidable. (Key Message #4, Chapter 29, Reducing Risks through Emissions Mitigation)

So, what can each of us do differently beginning today with this new information to avoid the boiling water metaphor becoming real? Many are familiar with the building sector’s 40% contribution to global emissions and the need to dramatically reduce them through design, construction, and operations. What else?

  • Take a Leadership Role, first of all.  Read the report and find the most relevant parts for your region, client types, and market sectors. Share that information with your colleagues and clients – make it a team effort. This federally issued report was written by 300+ scientists, and provides terrific resources including downloadable graphics and presentations. Review the case studies and use them or find more relevant ones to tell the stories that will help make the case for innovative solutions that drive mitigation and adaptation.
  • Embrace a Sense of Urgency – not to drive fear, but to stay focused and motivated. James Hanson, one of the first climate scientists to recognize the impact of human activity on the climate, recently said “I find the people who think we are doomed to be very tiring and unhelpful.”  The most catastrophic outcomes can be avoided “if we are smart, and I think we are capable of being smart.” (November 19, 2018, “Will We Survive Climate Change” NY Times) The 4th NCA Report clearly shows that what we can do in the next three decades will make an enormous difference in future outcomes. This means all new construction, with a crucial need to also address existing building stock.  Everything counts, not just the showcase projects.
  • Design Differently – we need innovative approaches to the design, construction, and operations of the built environment at all scales that will reduce risk especially for the most vulnerable populations.  Design for future climate projections instead of historical ones. Design for adaptability so the built environment can quickly change and learn as conditions shift. Design using our holistic-thinking training to address interdependent economic, societal, and environmental forces. Design in collaboration with others to define new policies and regulations that will drive change. We are creative thinkers; we can do this!

These are just a few of our takeaways from the 4th NCA Report. Please share your thoughts with us at [email protected] and [email protected]


Betsy del Monte, FAIA LEED AP BD+C, and Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, LEED Fellow, are Principal Consultants at Cameron MacAllister Group. Mary Ann also served as Review Editor on the 4th NCA Chapter 28, Reducing Risks Through Adaptation Actions. Both Betsy and Mary Ann work with firms to integrate greater sustainability and resiliency outcomes throughout their practice. If you are interested in learning how Betsy and/or Mary Ann can help your firm, please contact them directly.