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Climate change and the built environment: it’s time to make changes

By Felix I Zemel MCP MPH DrPHc
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Louisiana is known as a sportsman’s paradise, Florida is vacationland and, as we all know, everything is bigger in Texas.

Unfortunately, that can be a problem, as some of the things that have been bigger lately have threatened vacation spots, sportsman’s favorite escapes, and residents in all three states; as well as the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere in and around the Gulf of Mexico.

 

 

 

What is the cause of this destruction? Climate change.

 

As the global temperature rises, so too do tides; water levels; heat indexes; fire risks; hurricane velocity, ferocity, and frequency; and other elements of natural life that can have an enormous impact on both the natural and the built environment. Extreme weather conditions and their destructive fallout can also negatively impact people’s physical, emotional, and psychological health.

Noted psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested that shelter is among humanity’s most pressing and vital needs. What happens, then, if even this basic necessity is threatened by forces that are beyond humanity’s control, but not within its ability to respond to them?

As many scientists are already claiming that we have crossed the climatic Rubicon and cannot stop climate change, we need to focus more attention on where we can preserve the existing built environment, while mitigating the additional impacts that climate change is bringing.

Among the steps that we can take, to preserve the built environment, are:

  • Advocate for local building codes in flood-prone areas to have increased freeboard requirements, like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has required in its newest building code;
  • Retrofit building roofs with simple additions as hurricane clips, even in areas where high winds have not yet posed a regular threat, as is now required for all new construction through model building codes across the country;
  • Install tension connectors between existing porches, decks, and the framing of residential dwellings, as national model codes have required since 2009;
  • Retrofit existing drainage infrastructure to minimize the potential damage from water events;
  • Encourage the use of alternative energy sources for infrastructure, home, commercial energy, and transportation as in jurisdictional energy conservation codes for new construction in California, Washington, DC, and Massachusetts;
  • Recommend all new buildings comply with a “green” standard (e.g., LEED, IgCC, EnergyStar, HERS) for both energy efficiency and building materials, as they are currently being required in states and jurisdictions across the nation;
  • Utilize more private and public land/property as bases for solar arrays and wind farms through the application of eminent domain principles that have happened throughout the east and west coasts of the U.S.;
  • Advocate for legislatures to adopt new policies and protocols that recognize, address, and respond to the impacts of climate change and humanity’s role in it; similar to the Massachusetts and California legislation requiring meaningful study and action planning for mitigating the effects of climate change.

By making simple changes today, and planning for and encouraging more changes in the future, we may not be able to reverse the damage that has been done, but we can minimize and mitigate any future challenges and extend our lifespan, both as a generation and as a species.

 

What's the best way to make the connection between extreme weather and climate change? ecoAmerica's August Talking Points can help.  Download yours today. 

Felix I. Zemel, MCP, MPH, DrPH(c), CBO, RS, DAAS, Principal, Pracademic Solutions is the National Environmental Health Association's (NEHA) Climate Change Committee Co-Chair.  NEHA is a partner of Climate for Health, a coalition of health leaders committed to caring for our climate to care for our health.  Founded by ecoAmerica, Climate for Health offers tools, resources, and communications to demonstrate visible climate leadership, inspiring and empowering health leaders to speak about, act on and advocate for climate solutions. Learn more about our partnership and the resources available to you here