Like a runaway climate change train on a downhill line

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Ross Middleton says we might be a humble building industry magazine, but that doesn’t mean we have no room on the roof for Friedrich Nietzche, Joe Biden, David Bowie and Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

When Bowie saw “the gathering omens of doom” and sang “five years, that’s all we’ve got”, on his breakthrough 1972 album, he was out by several decades, but his sentiment was on the money.

It’s taken the global community a wee while to get the Ziggy message.

A close associate of mine says he is an “incrementalist”. This was in relation to a discussion about climate change and the future of humanity.

Upon further debate, he said, as in the past, we would do just enough to keep ahead of impending disaster. It was a concept I struggled with.

Much of the scientific evidence seems to imply that the world is going to adapt to climate change in a big hurry, and it is going to be a painful experience for our current business models.

Climate change exacerbated by humanity is the biggest issue facing the housing industry over the coming years.

Forget consenting processes, ownership issues and even the potential for still more severe global pandemics in the future. If we are frying or drowning then pandemics and paperwork matter not.

Recently one of Jacinda’s drones at the hive, David Parker, said, “In the building and construction sector, we have introduced the Building for Climate Change programme to improve the operational efficiency of buildings, reduce carbon emissions across a building’s whole life cycle, and improve buildings’ resilience to the impacts of climate change.”

Like the answers to the housing “crisis”, in the case of global warming, rhetoric is thick on the ground. Action? Maybe not so much.

Globally there seems to be a political and commercial will to focus on profound climate change action.

The hope will be that the rest of the world doesn’t catch the Jacinda bug in which an awful lot is said, sympathy is evinced, Facebook is massaged, and very little actually gets done.

Yet like it or not, that change is coming, like a runaway train on a downhill line. Where and when it will hit us is almost certainly beyond the scope of our Parliament, but the boffins say “button down”. Maybe another 50 years of good profit. Then who knows.

The warnings are stark. Every year seems be warmer than the one before. One day last year the Antarctic recorded a high above 20°C for the first time. The boys and girls at the base were digging out their T-shirts and jandals.

Just recently, the International Energy Agency warned global greenhouse gas emissions, which had been slowed by the pandemic, will surge this year, to levels above 2019.

“We are on the verge of the abyss,” UN secretary general António Guterres said of rising temperatures.

At no other point in history have we faced more hazards such as megafires, extreme weather, unusually large desert locust swarms and emerging biological threats, like Covid.

Nor have they been seen at such frequency, intensity and complexity, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said in a new report.

These disasters devastate livelihoods, inflicting cascading negative economic consequences from household to national levels, that could potentially endure for generations.

According to the FAO, disasters happen three times more often today than in the 1970s and 1980s. To quote Friedrich Nietzsche: “The earth has a skin and that skin has diseases; one of its diseases is called man.”

But all storms don’t have to be doom and gloom. There is, of course, the perfect storm (sorry, it’s a Freudian pun) we have at the moment when construction meets crisis, materials meets shortage, cost meets Covid and change meets that runaway climate train.

But hey, we’ll adapt — gunge houses out of a 3D machine, build matchbox accommodation on hillsides and stack ’em 100 storeys high.

All over our local media has been professor of construction management at AUT, John Tookey, breaking down the cost of building a house, from buying the land, gaining resource consent and putting in sewerage, to fitting the windows.

In explaining the complexities of fixing the sector, he says we have to lower our expectations of the house we want to build.

As construction adapts to meet these influences it will slowly but surely start to look very different to today’s normal.

Tradespeople will be constantly adapting to new building methods, new materials and new regulatory expectations.

And while educated guesses can be made, nobody knows what those changes are going to look like.

For example, the University of Washington has been looking at how plants will fare as carbon dioxide levels continue to rise. Some aspects of plants’ survival may get easier, some parts will get harder, and there will be species winners and losers.

The resulting shifts in vegetation will help determine the future direction of climate change. The good news is their results show that multiple changes occurring in plants’ leaves and competition between species could preserve these ecosystems’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

It is no wonder we are now commercialising peanuts in Northland and grapes in Central Otago.

Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement because the Republicans thought it might kill jobs. Biden jumped back in because not to do so might kill us all.

Biden has pledged to cut United States emissions nearly in half by the end of the decade, a target that will require Americans to transform the way they live.

He then hosted an Earth Day summit of global leaders, even including that bloke from China and climate laggards like Ardern.

As the United States pulls out of Afghanistan, Taliban leaders paraphrased it all rather nicely, suggesting that while the Americans had all the clocks, they had all the time.

The concomitant philosophy that such actions will cripple economies implies that there’s an alternate universe in which we pay nothing for climate change — there isn’t.

Enormous human suffering

In reality, not tackling climate change will cost everything, causing enormous human suffering and ecological damage, while transitioning to a greener economy would benefit most people and all ecosystems.

Continuous research by commercial leaders and the companies they work for has found sustainability trumps profit when it comes to business priorities.

With greenwashing being replaced by greening, it is somewhat ironic that it takes commerce and its understanding of profit and loss to put things into action. But perhaps that was always the case.

In New Zealand, literally thousands are having a say on the Climate Change Commission’s proposals, and it will be worth following for all businesses, given the importance of how it could shape the country’s future.

Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr says, “The draft [CCC] advice makes a strong start at exploring linkages between investment and climate resilience, and we appreciate that it recognises the interplay between the environment, economics, finance and well-being.

“We agree that interventions in all areas need to be properly considered and coherent. We believe that climate change could lead to material, economic and financial stability risks.”

As the construction sector changes under external influence, what will it look like and where will the profit-taking be?

Trump-style insularity may well be the panacea for the times. In the case of building, local materials being processed, manufactured and utilised locally by local companies for the betterment of the locality? What condition are those mothballed sawmills in again?

Dr Martin Luther King Jr noted: “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”

To summarise: change related to climate and environment is inevitable for the building sector in New Zealand.

Like most forward-thinking commercial operations globally, construction companies will need to accept this change and build it into their operating models for the future.

To do less will be to stymie that pie-in-the-sky for democratic capitalism: growth.

That incrementalism may also be a death knell.

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