The Policy Repercussions of Climate Change

(Ed note: this is an article that I wrote approximately two years ago and will serve as a springboard for future articles relating to climate change and building code influences.  Modifications I’ve made is in italics)

At one point or another, everyone in the science, engineering and policy development  field must question how climate change will influence the future direction of policies that govern their .  Those of us in south-western Ontario remember the wrath of winter in 2010 – snowstorms with record snowfalls and across-region city service disruptions.  However, before we dismiss the threat of global warming and make jokes around the water cooler about the impending ice age, let’s consider the science behind increased snowfalls.  According to global warming models (here and here) and most of IPCC’s findings, the Great Lakes are warming more during the summer and taking longer in the fall to dissipate heat, allowing cold arctic air to come across the lake to pick up a large amount of moisture, which is then dumped over land.  Any meteorologist will almost certainly agree that this is the current operation of our weather system, obviously very brief.  (Update: the research interest of one of my colleagues, Dr. Predrag Prodanovic, revolves around hydrology and climate change.  In a talk he gave as part of his defense, his research showed that climate change–manmade or otherwise–will result in greater frequency of extreme events such as floods or droughts.  I have linked his report to this site and I would highly recommend anyone interested to at least gleam at the report.)

This change in our climate structure certainly has many immediate disadvantages, e.g. public danger, highway closures, public services disruptions and business interruptions.  However, it’s when we look at the long term effects of this that we begin to see the interaction this will have with policies.  As you may know, the National Building Code of Canada spells out the Live Loads (majority of that loading is attributed to snow loads) that all roofs must be designed to withstand, and when accompanied with Dead Loads, is how Limit States Design (LSD) is calculated.  On top of that, there are safety factors for different loading patterns that has to be considered.  With every new revision of the NBCC, policy makers and engineers serving on professional bodies will likely have to weigh the odds of making drastic changes to the code, for instance, whether changes in snow patterns is an ongoing long term process, or if it is simply an “outlier” in the overall records.  I believe the decision to acknowledge climate change will dictate the way the code is read and design is carried out.  (Update: I focused primarily on snow loading but clearly there are other technical topics influenced by climate change.)

This is where the intersection of politics, policy development and engineering reach an impasse.  The Canadian government has now tossed the IPCC/UNFCCC aside and is pushing ahead with more tar sands development, drawing a proverbial line in the sand of climate change.  What choice does the engineering community have in its quest to revise the building code if the government that it has to work with does not subscribe to the belief that global warming will necessitate more robust buildings and infrastructures?  Nevermind LEED, engineers are required by their profession to adhere to a code to uphold public safety.  I truly wonder how that will be achieve, and if it’s not achieve then when will the finger-pointing begin?


About eatonkwan

Engineer by profession, interests lie in environmental development, LEED and sustainable development.
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