California Has Quickly Become an Epicenter for Climate Change: How Green Building Can Contribute to Remediation
By Meredith Cook
Meredith Cook is Verdical Group’s Events & Marketing Intern. She holds a BA in Urban & Environmental Policy from Occidental College.
When I began working with Verdical Group in July, I was well aware this would not be like the other office experiences I have had. I had been schooling and working remotely since March, accustomed by then to the ins-and-outs of video calls and the new norms many have adjusted to. What I did not expect, however, was just how much stress the world would be under in the months I have been with Verdical Group.
Too many of my days were spent working from a dimly lit room as smoke covered much of the sun’s light. My hometown of Sacramento did not see blue skies for nearly a month. My coworkers similarly experienced some good days and some very bad days of smoke over the last few months—385 miles away in Los Angeles. Fires continue to blaze across all of California, devastating thousands of lives and affecting many millions more.
Fires are part of the ecology of California, but this season the entire West Coast seemed to light up into flames, burning at least 5 million acres. This August was the hottest on record for California (Barclay, et al., 2020). The dry climate and hot temperatures contributed in large to the multitude of fires that occurred. The disastrous extent of these fires is not normal, and this may be just the beginning of the major impacts climate change will have on California.
Rising sea levels will affect the coastal areas of California, where houses are built right up to the waterline or on cliffs that are likely to slide into the water. The dispersion of water will become an even bigger problem: The wet and dry years are becoming simultaneously wetter and dryer. During wet years, dams and reservoirs are pushed to their limits, causing flooding in cities and towns. Dry years leave Californians to fight over what little water is received, also leaving the state even more susceptible to large fires (Flavelle, 2020). In order to combat these exacerbating problems, a great deal of adaptation is necessary.
California’s housing crisis plays a greater role in the problems faced than one might think. More and more of the development in California is being pushed into the “wildland-urban interface” (WUI), where wildfires are more frequent. Development is being pushed outward due to the rising prices of the existing urban housing stock. This sprawl of housing comes as a result of cities becoming too expensive and a lack of affordable housing near jobs. Thirty percent of the state’s population is living in the WUI, meaning their homes are near a much higher amount of potential wildfire fuel (Barclay, et al., 2020). The 2018 Butte County Camp Fire devasted thousands of homes in the WUI, homes many residents moved to in order to escape soaring rents in the Bay Area. Most residents rebuilt in the same area and were sadly hit again by fires this year.
One solution to the state’s housing and fire problems is to build denser housing in urban areas. Not only denser housing, but resilient, sustainable developments that will cut back current climate change contributions. More centralized housing would help to lower rental prices, move the state’s population away from fire-prone areas, and save carbon emissions that were occurring during commutes to and from cities. However, the reduction in carbon emissions from driving alone is not enough. In order for remediation to occur, and for California to combat the devastation that is likely to happen, buildings need to be built greener. Green building will save resources that Californians will need as climate change effects progress.
Green buildings help reduce carbon emissions, water and energy use, and waste. Standard building practices use and waste millions of tons of materials each year; green buildings use fewer resources and minimize waste. The heating and cooling systems in green buildings are safer and consume less energy than those of regular systems. Green buildings also shift to high-performance lighting, appliances, and water heating equipment that work towards electrification goals, saving emissions generated by fossil fuel combustion. As water becomes scarce in dry years, it will be increasingly important to save water, another thing green building does better. Water efficiency efforts in green buildings reduce water use, promote rainwater capture, and increase the use of non-potable sources (“Benefits of Green Building”, n.d.).
After reviewing 22 LEED-certified buildings managed by the General Services Administration, the Department of Energy found CO2 emissions from the buildings were 34 percent lower than non-certified buildings. They consumed 25 percent less energy and 11 percent less water, and they diverted more than 80 million tons of waste from landfills (“Benefits of Green Building”, n.d.). These are the kind of changes we can expect to see on a larger scale, as the green building movement becomes more mainstream.
Building smarter by making cities denser and greener will cut back on emissions as well as prevent catastrophic damage from fires likely to occur in the WUI. The next steps are crucial as climate change progresses. As California will remain threatened by the problems of climate change, the time is now to increase green building, cut back on carbon emissions, and build for a greener future.
- Barclay, Eliza, et al. “California’s Recurring Wildfire Problem, Explained.” Vox, Vox, 10 Sept. 2020, www.vox.com/21430638/california-wildfires-2020-orange-sky-august-complex
- “Benefits of Green Building.” Press: Benefits of Green Building | U.S. Green Building Council, www.usgbc.org/press/benefits-of-green-building
- Flavelle, Christopher. “How California Became Ground Zero for Climate Disasters.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Sept. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/09/20/climate/california-climate-change-fires.html