Much of the discussion about sustainability has focused on the contribution we can make to curb energy use and the effects of greenhouse gasses on the environment. The argument goes that by acting now, in collaboration with government, industry, and others, we can head off the destructive consequences of climate change. But what if the horse is already out of the barn?

If the recent floods, wildfires, heat waves, and judgment day–type storms were simply this summer’s phenomenon, we might shrug it off. But over the past decade, stuff like this has been happening at an increasing rate. Something unusual is going on when the water level of New York’s East River has risen 5 inches in the past 50 years. And that’s a fact. Or, when huge sheets of ice from Greenland and Antarctica are sliding off into the sea. Also a fact.

Meaningful action by governments around the world has been stalled by a perfect storm of vested interests and a failure of leadership. In this country, we’ve been frustrated by those who argue the weather has always had its ups and downs; some years hot and dry, others cold and wet. It’s all part of the natural cycle, they say. However, when records going back to the Industrial Revolution are plotted out on a graph, the data points follow an increasingly upward trajectory. Something is putting the climate’s natural cycles on steroids. Again, this is not speculation; it’s a fact. And facts, as John Adams wrote, are stubborn things.

I’m not suggesting we cease from our efforts to achieve carbon neutrality in the built environment. This must continue. What I am saying is the design professions have to become actively engaged with those who will listen to develop plans to deal with the new normal of extreme weather events. We are not without tools. Right now the challenge is to incorporate resilience into our communities through design. Critical facilities such as fire stations and hospitals must be able to survive the loss of essential services in the event of a natural disaster.

But our engagement in scenario planning can’t stop there. What if there’s a massive displacement of people who live along our coasts? Where will they relocate? And how will they be fed, since climate change is predicted to have a devastating effect on agriculture around the world? Media attention will come and go. But we can’t lose our focus: If we’re living in a world we can no longer control, we have no time to lose to develop a coordinated humane response. aia

Jeff Potter, FAIA, 2012 President