Happy Earth Day! What are we going to do about Climate Change?

By Brian Murphy

This awesome photo is by our friend, Jerry Monkman of  Ecophotography

This awesome photo is by our friend, Jerry Monkman of Ecophotography

It’s been a few weeks since Dr. Cameron Wake spoke in Portsmouth about climate change and our minds are still spinning here at Manypenny Murphy Architecture.  Today being Earth Day, it seems appropriate to share what we’ve been thinking.

“Climate Changes.  It always has, and always will.  [But now] humans are the main driver.”

“Climate Change is the innovation opportunity of the 21st century.”

“Climate Change is a distinct moral issue.”

Dr. Cameron Wake, in his lecture “Sink or Swim”


Dr. Wake is the Josephine A. Lamprey Professor in Climate and Sustainability at the University of New Hampshire and in his March 29 lecture hosted by PS21 at 3S Artspace his message was simple and familiar: human activity has caused unprecedented acceleration in climate change and if we don’t make major changes now the consequences will be catastrophic. 

He laid it on the line for us:

“If we keep on relying on fossil fuel as our main source for energy, by the end of this century we’ll end up with CO2 something on the order of 1000ppm with catastrophic climate change that will completely change our relationship with the Earth.” (According to Wake CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere has climbed from about 320ppm to 400ppm since 1957, having stayed below 300ppm for the previous 800,000 years.)

He continued, “Conversely if we invest in clean energy and energy efficiency, we might be able to stabilize at 400 or 450ppm, which will result in some changes, but changes, that if we work really hard, we can adapt to.”

Video and audio of the lecture can be found on the PS21 website in which Dr. Wake describes some of the “nasty surprises” we may see, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the course of action we take today.  In any case they translate by and large to eventual sea level rise.

Wake insists the challenges we face require a commitment to reshaping our mentality and behavior.  Collective efforts are imperative as this will take a cultural shift in two specific realms: (1) reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and (2) preparation for climate change resilience.

The Manypenny Murphy team left the lecture more inspired than ever to make a radical change, and because buildings are such a significant draw on our resources we, as architects, are in a critical position to help lead this shift.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, buildings are responsible for 47.6% of all energy consumption and 44.6% of all CO2 emissions in the country.  We believe goals in greenhouse gas reduction and climate change resilience are tightly connected to what is most important in our work.

Design of high performing buildings is, of course, at the forefront of this effort.  Responsible use of energy and resources as well as limiting emissions is important, starting with the manufacturing of construction materials and continuing through their transport to construction sites and how they are applied there.

But how we build and the materials we use are only part of it.  Careful planning for where we build and why we build is equally important.  This involves understanding environmental contexts, including sea level rise, as well as social contexts.  Through our work we are interested in building strong and vibrant communities, and we believe accessibility, walkability, and density to be the critical link between this and addressing climate change through the built environment.  Preparedness and resilience in these things can be affected through innovation in housing types and transportation strategies to reduce energy and resource consumption as well as greenhouse gas emissions.  

Therein lies the real potential for even greater innovation in the way we live and engage with the Earth and each other.  The choices we make in the building industry are not only essential to righting our course, but a tremendous opportunity to lead and inspire a more comprehensive change.