Environmental professor urges building owners to go green ‘for our children’

Thomas Homer-Dixon flips through slide after depressing slide, showing carbon dioxide levels sharply spiking off the chart by the century’s end. Global temperatures are heading in the same direction.

The author and University of Waterloo professor seems to be channelling Al Gore from the documentary An Inconvenient Truth with his impassioned proclamation of looming doom.

“This is a long, slow curveball with a fast break at the end,” said Homer-Dixon to a room of more than 200 attendees at the Canada Green Building Council’s national summit in Montreal on June 10. “We're going to have a rough time in the future.”

Global warming may be relatively common knowledge by now but Homer-Dixon is talking to some pretty important people. Architects, building owners, building managers. The kind of people that could make a real difference and, potentially, help turn the tide on one of the world’s most serious crises.

Canada’s commercial buildings, after all, are said to account for about 30 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“What we do locally has a global consequence,” said Homer-Dixon, who wrote a book called Carbon Shift: How the Twin Crises of Oil Depletion and Climate Change Will Define the Future.

The time to act is now, he said, adding that the problem is like a light switch. “Once we flip it on, we might not be able to flip it back,” with global warming spiralling out of human control.

“I know enough to be very concerned,” he said. “I don't want to look my children in the face and say they are members of a failed species.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is suggesting that the situation might be worse than originally thought. Arctic ice is melting at about 30 to 50 years ahead of original projections. By 2013, it could all be gone causing massive floods, said Homer-Dixon, with the dire prediction that it could wipe some big cities like London off the map.

Though a rise of a few degrees this century might not sound like such a big deal, it really is, said Homer-Dixon.

From the ice age all the way to the 1960s, the temperature rose only by about five degrees. The last time temperatures were as high as projected for the late 2000s, the world was starting to see its first reptiles 30 million years ago.

A warming climate will also likely be paired with food, economic and social breakdowns, as societies fight for the remaining resources.

“If we (go up) three degrees, it's actually going to be very hard to get back,” he said.

The problem is so dire it should be driving public policy said Homer-Dixon but areas of uncertainty are opening up “enormous room for procrastination.”

There are lags between human greenhouse gas emissions and climate response. Frighteningly, there could also be a lag between cuts to emissions and climate response.

The sad reality is that the biggest lag seems to be between policy and implementation, said Homer-Dixon – though the problem is urgent, government response will likely take close to a century.

“Even if we had the social will, we don't have the wherewithal,” he said.

But where government is failing to act, Homer-Dixon hopes building owners will take the lead locally to make great changes globally, with green, “liveable buildings,” built with the future in mind.

“We’re talking about going to zero (emissions) as quickly as possible,” he said. It might seem like an unrealistic goal but Homer-Dixon believes human beings are often their most creative in times of crisis.

Most importantly, we have to find a solution “for our children,” he said.

“We have to keep focused on our children,” said Homer-Dixon, adding that this paternal concern for children's welfare might be the only bond that links every society in the world.

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