Resilience as Means of Mitigating Climate Change

Posted by on May 5, 2014

Our newly renovated house and barn in Dummerston, Vermont will keep us safe even during an extended power outage.

Our newly renovated house and barn in Dummerston, Vermont will keep us safe even during an extended power outage. This is the principle of passive survivability.

In the weekly Energy Solutions blog I write for BuildingGreen and GreenBuildingAdvisor I’ve written recently about climate change, climate change denial, and strategies to motivate people (including policy makers) to bring about change.

Much to my surprise, some readers of the GBA blog last week raised the same climate-change-denial points that we hear with remarkably high frequency. This makes the arguments for resilience all the more relevant.

I’ve long argued that resilience can be a motivation for taking actions that will not only make us and our families safer, but also help to mitigate climate change. Let me lay out that basic argument again.

Climate change deniers seek to seed doubt about the realities of anthropogenic causes of climate change—and whether global warming is even happening. As the title of the 2008 book on this tactic, Doubt is Their Product, points out, if these industry-funded “experts” can convince enough people that the causes of a particular problem (whether climate change or hazards of tobacco or toxicity of flame retardants) are in doubt, policy makers can be convinced to hold off on imposing regulations that will cost industry money to implement.

Relative to climate change, that tactic has succeeded admirably: a large percentage of the public and the majority of legislators from a certain political party believe that the jury is still out.

With decision-making based on science seemingly impossible and new extraction technologies enabling us to extract ever-harder-to-reach oil and gas, what should we do to slow our greenhouse gas emissions? How can we convince people to take action?

The case for resilience

As defined by the Resilient Design Institute, resilience is “the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance.  It is the capacity to bounce back after a disturbance or interruption of some sort.”

Designing houses and apartment buildings to achieve resilience will keep people safer in the event of a disaster of some sort—whether a hurricane that might be more intense because of a warmer ocean, an earthquake that has nothing to do with climate change, or a power outage caused by terrorists hacking into our power grid controls.

You don’t have to believe in climate change to want to create safer homes for your family. It’s not a Blue State argument or one that is owned by Democrats. Indeed, I’ve observed that Tea Party libertarians are sometimes the most receptive to the resilience argument. They want to be free from the tyranny of big government, but some of them also want to be less dependent on those systems that are controlled by government—like electricity distribution and national transportation networks.

Low-energy buildings are more resilient

Nearly nine years ago, following Hurricane Katrina, I began advancing the idea of passive survivability: ensuring that buildings will provide livable conditions in the event of extended loss of power or interruptions in heating fuel. That remains a key tenet of resilience and what I have been advancing through the Resilient Design Institute.

To create a building that will maintain livable (or habitable) temperatures if it loses power or suddenly finds itself without heating fuel requires an extremely well-insulated building envelope. The house that my wife and I recently renovated—with R-45 walls, an R-60 roof, and really good windows, along with some passive solar gain through south-facing windows—will probably not drop much below 50°F even if there’s an extended power outage in the middle of winter, and keeping a fire going in our small wood stove during a power outage will be enough to keep us fully comfortable.

In hot climates—whether or not one believes that all climates will be getting warmer—the same argument applies. Energy efficiency measures help to keep homes and apartments from getting too hot if they lose power and air conditioning can’t be used. Overheating in passively operated buildings is admittedly a bigger challenge than keeping them reasonably warm in the winter, but passive survivability in hot climates relies on such strategies as keeping direct sunlight out (especially on the east and west), reflecting sunlight off the roof, and slowing conductive heat gain through the walls and roof.

Safer buildings that mitigate climate change

The same strategies that keep us safe during power outages or interruptions in heating fuel result in dramatically lower energy consumption during normal operation. Our house in Dummerston, Vermont is heated with a single 18,000 BTU/hour air-source heat pump—a small enough power draw that we can provide that electricity, on an annual basis, with a modest solar electric system.

We can build or retrofit to these passive survivability or resilience standards for safety reasons and, in doing so, we’re doing a great deal to mitigate climate change—but you can disregard that last benefit if you don’t believe that climate change is happening.

Resilience makes sense whether or not climate change mitigation is a goal. I’ve often said that it will be a huge success of the Resilient Design Institute if our arguments are touted by Rush Limbaugh in his radio program—probably unlikely, but not out of the question.

Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

One Comment

  1. Many state and municipal Climate Action Plans reference resiliency as a key strategy fir addressing climate change. It’s like the old saying “Think global, act local”.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers