The politics of climate change are irretrievably broken. Worldwide the big emitters are antagonistic and intransigent when it comes to addressing ‘the moral challenge of our age’. In Australia climate denialists in Parliament and the media have indulged in a bombastic and nihilistic fight that has successfully destroyed action for the past 10 years.
And they are not for turning, these ‘Crimsons’. No amount of reasoned argument counters their vituperative stand, based as it is on emotion. So when it infects both sides of parliament, the COALition and the ALP (Another Liberal Party), how do we get action to lower emissions?
Science has been to the fore in trying to change minds and demonstrate the need for climate action. Which is ironic as Australia has a deficit of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in our lives. There's a dearth of it taught in our schools and universities, particularly for women, and there's almost a complete lack of it on the CV’s of our national politicians.
But science loomed large in the recent bushfires: it did not go unnoticed to the wider population that scientists had predicted it, advocated to prepare for it, and told how to deal with the devastating fires. The coal troglodytes could ignore it, but science is winning over the populace, who are demanding action more than ever before.
So, what else can we do to promote climate action? I suggest we expand STEM in STEAD or Science, Technology, Engineering, Architecture and Design. You might think "He would say that, wouldn't he, being an architect and designer and writing on the ‘Architecture and Design’ news site"?
But I’m serious here: I think ‘Green Design’ can take the science so much further. For two key reasons: ‘green design’ is often so much better than standard ‘black or brown design’ (the colours of coal); and design (of any persuasion) is the natural home of the TBL or ‘triple bottom line’.
Let’s talk TBL first. Regular readers will know the argument: you cannot judge the success of anything by financial arguments alone, you need to give equivalence to the environmental and the social issues. And nowhere is this more applicable than in design: every project has social and environmental concerns at the heart of the brief, as well as costs. The triple bottom line is inherent in all good design.
Architecture students learn early on how to reconcile two seemingly opposing sides: the ephemeral sociology of people, clients and community; versus the extreme physicality of sites. Sociology and Physics. Equity and the environment. People and Planet. Sadly, the financial is not robustly tested until they enter practice.
Now for some examples of ‘green design’ that might push climate action quicker. Let’s start with the vexed question of generating electricity. It is visually obvious how diabolically environmentally awful is an open-cut coalmine and its concrete steam-spewing power station. Not to mention the algae in the heated lakes, and all that before we get to the costs of construction and ongoing operation, both of which exceed sustainable alternatives.
By contrast, a ‘solar farm’ of framed photovoltaics has minimal impact, requiring little civil work to support the panels that follow the contours and minimal buildings for batteries. Where the panels are elevated above ground, they can provide shade for animals grazing underneath, making it an interdependent space, helping to retain moisture, aiding rather than ruining agriculture.
On land, wind generators can have grazing or other activities all around; at sea they are far less hazardous than oil and gas drilling (although the technology to build them comes from the fossil fuel industry). At worst they are a navigation hazard, at best, a mobile sculpture of engineering purity and great beauty.
The triple bottom line analysis shows that solar and wind are not only cheaper, they are better environmentally and socially. We have to mount the argument that their elegance is a better design than the coal draglines, conveyors and concrete cooling towers of a coal-fired power station. We have to be bold to talk the beauty of green design.
Electric cars. They are a novel technology and there are issues with charging. They're more expensive, but most are better internally, and many don’t look like the homogenised designs we live with now. Key issue: driving an EV is better: safer, better handling, quieter, less vibration and more comfortable and, for the lead-footed, very quick in acceleration.
Understanding that 80 percent of all trips are less than 80 kilometres, you charge it at night and won’t miss pulling into a petrol station. But the bottom line is: you will never meet an owner that wants to go back to the ICE (internal combustion engine). Beauty in motion that can also have zero emissions.
Last example, buildings. Let’s stop obsessing about energy and start talking human comfort and the beauty of being tuned into the climate. Humans respond much more to radiant surfaces than stuffy air; and so passive solar homes are more comfortable because they are based on radiant, not air, heating and cooling.
Office buildings are now offered on the basis of occupant comfort rather than energy and water savings. Better thermal comfort leads to better worker efficiency, less absenteeism and less employee churn; all of which saves the business much more than energy savings, and greater corporate profit. Human satisfaction makes more money; strange beauty.
If we can’t convince the political nay-sayers to address climate change with science, maybe we should try STEAD instead of STEM. These successes show how if we adopt design, with its emphasis on the triple bottom line, we will see how the ‘green karma can run over the brown dogma’.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be posted here or addressed to [email protected].