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From climate change comes opportunity to innovate

A cur­sory look at the Third National Climate Assessment released Tuesday by the National Cli­mate Assess­ment and Devel­op­ment Advisory Com­mittee yields a grim out­look. The authors state that cli­mate change is already begin­ning to impact nearly every sector of the economy—and that’s not all: It’s already threat­ening human health and well being and adversely affecting our infra­struc­tures, our water resources, our crops, our live­stock, and our nat­ural ecosystems. What’s more, plan­ning efforts to adapt and mitigate the problem are facing serious limitations.

But North­eastern pro­fessor Matthias Ruth, who co-​​authored two chap­ters of the nearly-1,200 page report, isn’t pessimistic. As a leader in the emerging field of ecological economics, Ruth focuses his work on building bridges across sec­tors and dis­ci­plines to tackle the growing problem of cli­mate change, espe­cially in urban set­tings and he’s hopeful that this approach will bear fruit.

Some people will look at the report, he said, and panic about the costs of dealing with cli­mate change. Others will worry about the costs if we don’t deal with it imme­di­ately. “And then there’s a third group, and that’s the one I’d love to see speak up,” said Ruth, who holds appoint­ments in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “They are the ones who don’t talk about the cost—they are the smart busi­ness people who say, ‘wow, there’s an oppor­tu­nity here.’”

The chap­ters to which Ruth con­tributed focused on the impact of cli­mate change on infra­struc­tures, urban systems, and the northeastern United States. The report’s col­lab­o­ra­tive approach, he said, which focused on convening experts from a wide range of disciplines in industry, gov­ern­ment, and academia, is exactly the kind of measure we must con­tinue to employ.

“Everything’s interrelated—power, trans­porta­tion, water—and they all have impli­ca­tions for public health,” Ruth said. “So one big take home mes­sage is that we need to begin to manage these as inter­re­lated systems.” That mes­sage has come to the fore­front in this report, the third since 1990, when con­gress passed the Global Change Research Act man­dating reg­ular cli­mate assessments.

The other big mes­sage is that cli­mate change is not a topic of the future, Ruth said, noting that “It’s already happening and every U.S. citizen is affected.” This is evident, he said, in the increased number of heat waves in northeastern cities such as Boston, in the deterioration of our infra­struc­tures, and in changes to bio­di­ver­sity in our ecosystems.

And busi­ness as usual won’t change the trend. “We draw on ever­more depleted resources from all around the world to afford our lifestyles,” Ruth said. “We should be smarter than that.”

He said instead of putting up sea walls and other hard struc­tures with mate­rials from far away, we need to think about incor­po­rating salt marshes and oyster beds along urban coast­lines, as they can nat­u­rally help mit­i­gate floods as storm surges increase. Instead of designing build­ings for a cli­mate of a hun­dred years ago, we need to think of alternatives to the flat black roofs that trap heat. Instead of thinking about our infrastructure sys­tems as sep­a­rate and con­tained, we need to imagine ways that water, energy, and trans­porta­tion can work together to absorb the impacts of a changing climate.

Luckily, Ruth said, “This is the country where this hap­pens. We pride our­selves on this entre­pre­neurial spirit of mobilizing resources and having the mar­ket­place help sup­port these deci­sions.” He envi­sions a world where we take all this dis­parate knowl­edge and create some­thing new, a world where the tra­di­tional engi­neering methods work in unison with our local ecosystems—all sup­ported by data and new innovations.

“With the world largely urban­ized now, if we can figure out here how to make that tran­si­tion to more sus­tain­able urban living,” Ruth said, “I think we have a great busi­ness opportu­nity, but also a great human­i­tarian oppor­tu­nity for other parts of the world.”

– By Angela Herring

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