Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On Polar Bears and Scary Pols

"Pols" as in the diminutive of "politician," referring to some environmentally-minded citizens' optimism (exemplified in this dKos diary) that a sea change in the Bush administration's environmental policy has accompanied the literal sea change that has occurred in part due to global warming, and which is threatening polar bear habitat due to melting ice.

It is true that Interior Secretary (and noted anti-environmentalist) Dirk Kempthorne has hopefully proposed adding polar bears to the 'threatened' list.

However, this was not some out-of-the-blue show of seriousness in response to the growing crisis of global warming. Rather, the Interior Department's hand was forced by a court order.
The decision from Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees endangered species, coincides with a court-ordered deadline. In February 2005, the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace petitioned Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the polar bears. After Fish and Wildlife officials missed a deadline for deciding earlier this year, the groups sued and agreed on Wednesday's deadline. (Ibid)
Furthermore, at least two news articles (the Yahoo! article linked above and this one from MSNBC) did not have specific quotes from Interior acknowledging that greenhouse gas emissions were causing the warming that they acknowledged was melting arctic sea ice. Global warming deniers frequently make the latter acknowledgement these days, but they deny that human activities are affecting average global temperature.
Such a decision would require all federal agencies to ensure that anything they authorize that might affect polar bears will not jeopardize their survival or the sea ice where they live. That could include oil and gas exploration, commercial shipping or even releases of toxic contaminants or climate-affecting pollution.

Kempthorne, however, said his department's studies indicate that coastal and offshore oil and gas exploration — heavily promoted by the Bush administration, particularly in Alaska — shouldn't be curtailed.

"It's very clear that the oil and gas activity in that area does not pose a threat to the polar bears," he said. (Yahoo! article)
What more proof is there of the Bush administration's failure to overtly admit to greenhouse gas emissions causality, at least in this case, than a statement that denies oil and gas activities' guilt in the polar bears' plight?

This comes only 10 months after the largest oil spill in the arctic last March. Furthermore, any natural gas (methane) that leaks from wells and doesn't make it into the pipeline is emitted into the air as a very harmful greenhouse gas. Most obviously, continued oil drilling in Alaska is feeding the nation's gluttonous appetite for easy motoring, releasing over 300 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year. And that is just the U.S.

We can rejoice that at least the process (which will take at least a year) is being started to give polar bears their long overdue place on the 'threatened' list. But let's not think that the Bush administration has had a "Saul-to-Paul" moment when they reluctantly agree to something due to a court order.

It is always best to focus on ourselves: what can we do now, voluntarily, to mitigate climate change, as opposed to waiting for the government to force us to do something (or refrain from doing things)?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Green Buildings: The Need for a New Era of Architecture

Modernist architecture came to the U.S. from Europe by force around the 1930s. Its main proponents decreed offensive the ornament that had been so characteristic to the Neoclassical and Neogothic buildings which represented the popular style in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In fact, one of the first rants against the status quo came from Austrian architect Adolf Loos in his 1908 essay Ornament and Crime.

Modernism sought openly to design buildings appropriate for the machine age that emerged from the industrial revolution. Machines were the symbol of rationalism, and it wasn't rational to hearken back to ancient Grecian or Medieval European times of non-mechanized living.

Not only did modernist buildings resemble machines, they also began to depend on them for their structures. Concrete and steel production that aided the tail end of the neoclassical period in building the nation's first true skyscrapers (with concrete and steel frames replacing brick, load-bearing walls) enabled modernist architects to go even higher.

Machines also made living and working in skyscrapers both possible and bearable. The invention of the elevator assured the former criterion. Doing away with brick meant ridding buildings of one of their primary heat storage components. But modernist buildings with their all metal and glass facades did not need to be climate-specific, because central air conditioning and heating mtigated the harsh edges of any climate, albeit at a high energy cost.

The result of Modernism that carries into the present day is a legacy of buildings that, in addition to expiring aesthetically not long after their heyday, suck up a lot of energy, a condition that is regrettable now that global warming and energy shortage solutions are urgently needed. The egotism of modernist architects is coming back to haunt their collective clientele, and it is only surpassed by the ludicrous egotism of postmodern architects, whose buildings (with some striking exceptions) are even more out of touch with anyone except their designers.

So what is needed is a new era of architecture that focuses on something on which no American architectural era has focused, but has guided almost the entire history of buildings in general. That is gentleness with the natural environment, or "green building." Despite the US Green Building Council's much-needed LEED certification system and its admirable advocacy efforts, green building is still a needle in the haystack of drab, mundane, energy guzzling buildings being erected today. There are only a handful of buildings in the US that have USGBC's highest (most environmentally friendly) "platinum" certification. (Two are in Chicago.) There should be thousands.

Still, green building is becoming more and more popular. Washington, D.C.'s decision to require all large private development construction and major renovation to achieve LEED certification by 2012 is the boldest step forward yet, and it comes in the wake of several cities' LEED targets for government buildings. These cities include Washington D.C. itself, Chicago and Pasadena, California. Even the new stadium for the Nationals is striving for LEED certification. Overall, over 500 buildings in the US have achieved certification, and thousands more could come in the near future, but green building is a still a small phenomenon.

Making the environment the central focus of building design not only requires a renewed focus, but a renewed kind of focus. For centuries, humans designed their humble dwellings in the context of their climates; they needed to. Alaskan natives built igloos that protected them from Alaska's harsh winters, with their sled dogs between their living area and the small opening serving as living insulation and sources of heat. Central Asians living in hot, dry climates built simple wind catching components on their houses to help cool them. But the focus of American architectural periods has either been aesthetic - Neoclassicism (altruistic) and Postmodernism (egoistic) - or functional - Modernism. Care for the environment falls outside these two substantial realms of architecture, but impending realities are beginning to demand such a focus, or else we may be left with many obsolete, inefficient buildings in thirty years.