Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Green solutions create unforeseen problems, NOAA expert says

Putting up “green” buildings is fine, said Scott Shuford of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, but if people have to commute to use it, that green building is more of a problem than a solution.

That’s because Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) is far more critical to heading off climate change, said Shuford, one expert of more than 60 who presented ideas and expertise at the concluding day of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute’s 17th annual conference at DU on March 7.

“VMT is very, very important,” Shuford told listeners in a breakout session Friday morning. The topic was how professional planners need to become “major players” in meshing community development with cutting greenhouse gases.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” added Bill Klein of the American Planning Association. “At 450 parts per million [of carbon dioxide in the air], all hell breaks loose.”

The nation hit 315 ppm in the 1950s and is presently about 380 ppm, rising 2–3 ppm per year.

“That equates to about 35 years left,” he said.

“We need to get engaged as planners,” Klein urged, and begin integrating climate change reduction strategies into planning with the routineness with which planners already integrate public health, hazards and habitat protection into their decisions. “The stakes are incredibly high if we get it wrong.”

Shuford appealed to planners to help make urban areas more attractive to people who fled to the suburbs out of fears linked to race and crime and to find less expensive homes and better schools.

“We’ve been trading driving for affordable housing,” said Shuford, who noted that the pattern is beginning to change because of the cost of gasoline and the rising cost of heating and cooling suburban homes.

“Greater density can drive down the cost of housing,” he said, and “planners can make urban areas more attractive.” The result can be a reduction in VMT, he said, and a brake on the carbon creation that goes with that commuting.

“The world is never going to look like the 1950s again,” said Jan Mueller of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, who urged planners to organize local coalitions with which to approach influential state and federal officials.

But planners also have to begin preparing for changes already on the way, such as unusual variations in precipitation; altered agriculture growing seasons; increased heat waves, which kill more people than do hurricanes; more intense droughts and the increased wildfires that result; and what to do when the climate of New Hampshire resembles the climate of North Carolina today.

“We’re gonna have climate change winners and losers,” Shulford cautioned. “People are going to move because of climate. Disinvestment can occur.”

The way to deal with these conditions is up to individual communities, some of which won’t even discuss the issue, let alone take steps to prepare.

“Scientists don’t tell us what to do,” Mueller reminded. “They just tell us what might happen.”

Read about the conference topic – wind turbines.
Read about the conference keynote speech.

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