Searching for Optimism in an Age of Climate Change

Posted by on Jan 6, 2015

An image taken from Apollo 8 in December 1968. Photo: NASA

An image taken from Apollo 8 in December 1968. Photo: NASA

The beginning of a new year always affords an opportunity to step back and think about where we are, where we’re heading, and why.

I launched the Resilient Design Institute not quite three years ago after a long period of reflection on how to make our buildings and communities more resilient and better able to adapt to a changing climate. My interest in resilience goes back nearly ten years. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 I got involved in an effort to inspire more sustainable reconstruction in the Gulf Coast—an effort that led to drafting The New Orleans Principles.

Through that process, I recognized that more sustainable buildings are also safer.

For example, when disaster strikes, whether from a hurricane or tornado or wildfire or terrorist action, one of the outcomes is often a power outage. Highly insulated, passive-solar, green homes do a far better job at keeping their occupants safe during an extended power outage than do conventional homes. Communities in which residents can get by without a car—walking to the pharmacy or corner market—will do better in the event of a shortage of gasoline or an inability to pump that gasoline (as occurred with Hurricane Sandy in 2012). These resilience measures are key aspects of green design.

What inspired me to launch an organization to promote these and other aspects of resilient design, was the recognition that the safety aspects of these strategies might be a stronger motivation to get mainstream America on-board in achieving more sustainable, lower-carbon buildings and communities than simply “doing the right thing.” And this gets back to my overriding life mission.

For more than four decades—really back to the late-1960s—I’ve dedicated my life to improving the environment. As a teenager, I wrote letters to my congressmen urging them to support the Clean Air Act, to pass the Endangered Species Act, to protect wilderness areas. I was even the Earth Day coordinator in my junior high school in 1970.

After college, where I earned a degree environmental biology, I got involved in renewable energy, seeing that as a way to reduce the need for extracting and burning fossil fuels—the root cause of many of the environmental problems we were focused on. This led me to work in New Mexico teaching people about passive solar energy and then to Brattleboro, Vermont, where I directed the New England Solar Energy Association for five years (during which time we morphed NESEA into the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association).

When I left NESEA in 1985—thirty years ago this year—I started my own company, which is now BuildingGreen and employs an amazing staff of 15. I feel proud of what BuildingGreen has accomplished since 1985, and especially since 1992, when we launched Environmental Building News.

But when I read the latest reports or articles about climate change, I get discouraged. We’re simply not making enough progress quickly enough. Bill McKibben’s 2012 article in Rolling Stone, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, laid out the challenge we face very clearly in three numbers: 2°C (the temperature rise that climate scientists say the earth can experience without catastrophic ramifications); 565 gigatons (the amount of carbon dioxide that the humans can still emit and keep global warming below 2°C); and 2,795 gigatons (the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that would result if all of the known fossil fuel reserves were burned).

As we await word on whether average global temperatures in 2014 set a new all-time record or end up as only the second-warmest year in history, the urgency of making real progress in slowing greenhouse gas emissions becomes ever more real.

Advancing resilience or adaptation does not mean giving up on mitigation

Some people have challenged the strategy of advancing resilient design to enable us to adapt to a changing climate, calling this a cop-out. “Doesn’t that mean you’re giving up on reducing carbon emissions?” I’m asked.

Not at all. In fact, my motivation in advancing resilience is based largely on the fact that many resilience strategies will help to mitigate climate change. In fact, I believe that shifting the motivation for creating lower-energy buildings and more walkable communities to one of safety will get more of the public on board and speed the implementation of the needed changes. I even think that this motivation can result in adopting building codes that require our homes to be built to near-Passive-House standards.

Beginning 2015 with the backdrop of last year’s IPCC reports and the ever-mounting evidence that humans are rapidly warming the climate makes me redouble efforts to expand RDI and broaden its reach.

Seeking your guidance and support

Despite entering our third year, RDI is still a fledgling organization. Early on I had grand visions of garnering enough foundation support or donations to enable me hire staff and launch far-reaching, exciting new programs advancing resilient design. I’ve received some corporate support and donations (for which I am immensely grateful), but not enough to hire any staff. If you have contacts with foundations or corporations or individuals who might consider supporting RDI, please be in touch with me.

And if you have suggestions for how the Resilient Design Institute can most effectively get the word out on resilience, I’d love to hear them. How can we achieve the greatest benefit most quickly?

Thanks much, and have a great New Year!

Alex's signature-sm



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. Enter your e-mail address at the upper right to receive notices of newly posted blogs.


  1. Alex: Thank you for your very insightful post. We at NJIT’s Center for Resilient Design share your optimism and concerns, and have been seeking ways to address the challenges of resiliency.

    We are co-hosting an event with the US Green Building Council, NJ Chapter on Climate Change that you and your readers might find of interest. Below, you’ll find more details:

    Good luck with the Institute. We should find ways to collaborate in the future.

    CLIMATE REALITY: Causes, Affects, & Solutions for the 21st Century & Beyond Presented by USGBC NJ ‐ The Official Provider Licensed by USGBC DATE: Wednesday, January 14, 2015, 2:00 – 4:00 PM (Sign-in starts at 1:30) LOCATION: Weston Hall (Lecture Hall 1), College of Architecture and Design, NJIT, Newark, NJ REGISTER at: INSTRUCTOR: Jason Kliwinski AIA, LEED AP BD&C, O&M, LEED Fellow, CEO/Founder Green Building Center, Adjunct Faculty, NJIT School of Architecture ABOUT THIS SESSION: The idea of resiliency has emerged as a major driving force in response to extreme events being experienced more and more frequently as a result of the effects of climate change. Designing communities and buildings to be resilient in addition to sustainable has become necessary but it is still only treating the symptoms rather than curing the cause. This presentation will provide attendees with the science behind climate change, the affects being felt around the globe, and the big picture solutions possible to mitigate or even reverse climate change. 400,000 people descended on NYC recently to speak out about this issue at the United Nations summit and the United States and China recently signed a historic pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is our sincere hope that this presentation will help you understand one of the most important social, environmental and economic challenges of our time and give you a starting point to get engaged and make a difference. ABOUT THE CLIMATE REALITY PROJECT: Founded and chaired by Al Gore, Nobel Laureate and former Vice President of the United States, The Climate Reality Project has more than 5 million members and supporters worldwide. It is guided by one simple truth: The climate crisis is real and we know how to solve it. CREDENTIAL MAINTENANCE UNITS: GBCI CE Hours 2 (self-reported) COST TO ATTEND: Members: $25.00 Non-members: $35.00 Students: No charge Qualifying grantees: No charge OPEN TO QUALIFYING GRANTEES: Employees of NJ businesses may qualify to take this course fully-funded. Interested companies should contact Florence Block, USGBC NJ Executive Director at (973) 290-0013.

  2. Thank you for your contribution. Best wishes for your efforts to secure funding.


  4. I’ve come to the conclusion that the “pester power” of children and young people is immense. They can and do influence their parents choices. They also grow up and start making their own decisions.

    Engaging the interest of the young now could havea bigger and quicker impact than chipping away at their parents!

    Project packs for schools?

    Instructions for easy to build comparison props for interest groupsto use at shows and fairs? I’ve helped out at a home show using a box to show the impact of different types of lighting and I’ve seen others demo the impact of insulation or sealing. the low tech end of resilient design. kids really get it when they see and feel the difference between a bulb that uses lots of power and chucks out lots of heat and one that doesn’t.

    Find some motivated young game developers to develop a game allowing players to upgrade their virtual home to withstand a cataclysmic event?

  5. Alex,

    I have seen the great effect Urban Green (for example) has had in the work of NYC on code adoption and advancement of discussions and guides for resiliency. They are just always there, likely saying “don’t forget about our knowledge and our skills and our free advice”. And it works, well.

    I recommend you continue to invest time in collaborative studies as you’ve done, and seek partner organizations that can help you gain leaps in traction.

    We need to think and act creatively in order to make the far-reaching changes we seek. I am often stymied by the steps taken in NYS policy that are limited in their scope. I wish I would know about some of the work before it is launched, but even so, after launch, we still have the ability (and imperative) to get on the implementation committees and keep beating the drum for broadening the inputs and understanding of co-benefits.

    Resiliency and sustainability are all about understanding the co-benefits.


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