November 10, 2016

Avoiding the Abyss: Climate Crisis, Apollo 13 & Passive House in the Age of Donald Trump


As the New York Times, post-election, reminds us: if Trump abandons the commitments of COP21 made in Paris, other countries like India will likely become disincentivized to act.

apollo-13If this comes to pass it will be impossible to prevent runaway global warming, with human population collapse, massive species extinction and unimaginable levels of suffering. Climate tipping points are just too close and unforgiving. 

How might we, with no luxury of time or resources, escape this existential tragedy? 

On Apollo 13, after an onboard explosion, stuffed into the unused lunar module, and confronted with deadly CO2 levels – the astronauts hacked a solution out of the seemingly random materials at hand and were able to save themselves. Without a functioning federal government – Trump named a climate skeptic to lead the EPA transition reported Scientific American – we now need a continental hack to our climate crisis.  

The good news is that we have the materials – they include:  cheap renewable energy, willing municipal and state governments, and Passive House technology.

First, cities and states, from Massachusetts to California, have taken the lead in combating climate change. Trump’s abandonment merely makes it an almost exclusive effort. Cities and states must express, loud and clear, their support for the COP21 Paris Commitments while rapidly implementing all climate mitigation tools at their disposal. We’re lucky that our headquarters is located in New York City, where comprehensive carbon reduction plans are not only in place but are being acted upon at both Mayor de Blasio’s and Governor Cuomo’s offices.  These plans must speed-up and be leveraged through organizations like the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and the Under 2 Coalition.

powerlinesSecond, solar and wind power generation costs are close to parity with fossil fuel sources, and they should soon cost substantially less. Combined with energy efficiency and smart grid measures, cities and states can abandon fossil fuels.

Third, buildings are the single largest contributor to our greenhouse gas emissions. Passive House – an approach of airtight and well insulated envelopes unified with very efficient building systems – drastically reduces building energy consumption and in so doing Passive House supports the switch to all electric buildings, and flattens peak electrical demand.  In switching to electrically heated and cooled buildings with a more even energy demand profile – Passive House makes the expeditious transition to a green grid far more feasible.  Code changes and incentives that will drive adoption of Passive House by states and cities need to rapidly accelerate.*

kidsOur recent presentation, Notes from New York, describes how we are succeeding in New York and the strategies that can be applied in other regions.  As we’ve seen before, such action by California and others can have far reaching transformational effects across the nation.  As an affordable technology, like the Model T automobile, Passive House can scale and can do so quickly.

The election of Donald Trump will likely be a human rights disaster and damage the institutions meant to safeguard those rights. If so, we will all be diminished by what comes next.  But we can learn how to survive an autocrat.  And we can rebuild institutions and our democracy – we have done it before.  We cannot rebuild a lost planet.   

To recap – if the White House continues to call climate change a hoax and acts accordingly, leading cities and states should:

  • Proclaim their ongoing support for climate agreements like COP21.**
  • Switch to 100% renewables for their regions.
  • Make Passive House performance for all new construction and retrofits a requirement – in support of the renewables transition.

Let’s overcome potentially irreversible damage.  Let’s act swiftly and decisively.  

Join with local Passive House groups and other concerned citizens; contact your city and state officials; find out what you can do to accelerate the transformation of city and state efforts to combat climate change.  Build Passive Houses.  And in the process, like the astronauts on Apollo 13, let’s hack better solutions.

Let us know if we can help you.

In This Together,

The 475 Team


* Yes, rainforest protection, agricultural production, transportation and waste must also be hacked – we’ll leave the details of those actions to Greenpeace, The Alliance to Save Energy,, Natural Resources Defence Council and others – as our plate is full of buildings.

**Update:  On November 23rd, 35 Mayors, from New York City to Los Angeles, sent an open letter to Donald Trump on climate action.   See it here.

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13 Responses to Avoiding the Abyss: Climate Crisis, Apollo 13 & Passive House in the Age of Donald Trump

  1. Karl Johnson November 15, 2016 at 2:50 pm #

    What a great article – we are only doomed if we do not act and get to the heart of the matter – you articulated that so well.
    Thank you
    Karl J

  2. Jim Waterman CPHD/C November 15, 2016 at 9:30 pm #

    An article in a recent business magazine (either Fortune or Forbes, don’t remember), the title was ‘Wind is getting cheap’. The premise of the article was that on a $/installed KW basis, wind power is substantially cheaper than any fossil fuel plant to build and operate. Utility scale PV solar is right behind it, at parity or lower. Today.

    Businessmen make decisions based on economics. The power industry already has, and has stopped building almost any fossil fueled facilities. Problem solved. Coal is effectively dead today based on simple economics of operation.

    • Ken November 16, 2016 at 9:27 am #

      Agreed! But often even the “best choice” is not the choice taken. It’s not a matter of just not building new coal plants but we’ll need to shut the existing ones down ASAP. We need to all push to be sure it happens and happens quickly.

  3. William November 16, 2016 at 6:58 am #

    This is tongue-in-cheek right? Please, the world will not come to an end because Donald Trump has been elected president. The COP21 Paris Commitments will not save the world; just take more money from hard-working folks and put it into the pockets of statist politicians.

    I used to like receiving your newsletter, but I see that you too have gone off the deep end so will now cancel my subscription and no longer purchase products from your company.

    By the way, I live in northern WI, in what you would most likely call a natural disaster area. The landscape is dotted with thousands, upon thousands of lakes, not to mention the state being bordered by the lakes Michigan and Superior. If it weren’t for that damn global warming more than 16,000 years ago this area could still be covered with glaciers and have spared me from living in this natural disaster area.

    • Ken November 16, 2016 at 9:25 am #

      Sorry – we don’t claim the world will come to an end because of Trump, nor do we think that COP21 will save it. BUT we have a chance to prevent runaway global warming if we affirm COP21 and push further. AND if Trump does what he says he’s going to do the result, at this time, is very likely runaway climate change. YES, the world will go on quite fine – it’s just our human habitat that won’t. While we may have different perspectives on climate science I hope we can continue to agree on building science and what it means to build high-performance. We hope you’ll reconsider – we appreciate working with all our customers. Be well.
      – Ken

      • William November 17, 2016 at 8:13 am #

        I built a passive solar cob / adobe house in northern WI, heating with Finnish contra flow masonry heaters. I can heat the place in winter with a candle when it’s cloudy and the sun “recharges” the walls in the winter with radiant heat when it’s not cloudy. That’s building science, which is why I had previously enjoyed reading articles on this website on various featured projects. Your article is not building science. It’s leftist / statist talking points.

        You wrote, “A new Dark Age is upon our children / grand children, human population collapse, massive species extinction, unimaginable levels of suffering if Trump abandons COP21.” That’s nut-job fear-mongering, the likes of which I last read about in the 1970’s when “proven science” was raising the alarm over global cooling. Global cooling, by the way, has been the long-term trend of the planet.

        Paraphrasing, you wrote, “Trump named a client changed skeptic to head EPA and so we are now left without a functioning federal government.” Really? That’s constitutional ignorance. The federal government and it’s various agencies have long been dysfunctional and are on the whole, more tyrannical than King George III. Perhaps you might want to consider reacquainting yourself with Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. These are the only things that the States have granted power to the Federal Government to perform on their collective behalf. Anything beyond that is a clear violation of law, which is by definition dysfunction.

        You wrote, “The election of Donald Trump is on track to be an unmitigated human rights disaster.” Is this a building science blog or the propaganda arm of the United Nations? Please list the human rights abuses that have occurred in the past 7 days since the election that were caused by Donald Trump and why these human rights abuses are already on track to be such an unmitigated disaster. I aware of none. I am aware of only one group that has been abusive, destructive, and intolerant in the past 7 days; the anarchists protesting the election of Donald Trump.

        You further wrote, “We will all be diminished by what comes next. But we can learn how to survive an autocrat.” This is laughable. What unconstitutional executive orders has Donald Trump already issued and tried to unilaterally put into effect? What factual basis do you have for asserting that we will now live under autocratic rule? To the contrary, the most autocratic, unconstitutional power grab made in the last 100 years of the Republic has been perpetrated by President Obama.

        Perhaps you might want to consider a career as a writer of horror films for Hollywood since unbelievable fear-mongering seems to be a talent that comes naturally to you. The United Nations could also use more propagandists on their payroll. But then again, you are clearly concerned about human right abuses, so that’s not likely a good fit; the UN likes to run their child sex slave operations in underdeveloped countries in exchange for food provisions.

        Then again, if you like the products, services, and objective of 475, then maybe you should just stick to writing about building science.

        • Ken November 17, 2016 at 9:00 am #

          Great to hear about your house. Sorry you didn’t like the post. Of course we will be writing many posts going forward, and we hope you will find them more useful. We are always trying to put practical information in the hands of our audience.
          All Best,

  4. Joe Denegre November 16, 2016 at 8:50 am #

    The article linked here on runaway global warming by no means represents that this “new Dark Age” is a proven possibility, yet here it is presented here as irrefutable fact. Though I would agree with many of the sentiments expressed here, I draw the line at deliberate distortion of the source text, even at the risk of being counted as another “denier.” This critical issue has become a morality play allowing of no disagreement or skepticism, only conversion or surrender.

    • Ken November 16, 2016 at 9:16 am #

      Thank you for the comment. But no, actually it is a proven POSSIBILITY. Many of the best climate models, with business as usual, show runaway global warming as the result. The linked article merely notes that we may be much closer to the tipping points than previously thought. Not sure what the disagreement is. We’re happy you like the rest of the post though.

  5. Jeremy Avellino November 16, 2016 at 9:16 am #

    huzzah!!!! The Empire has struck back and we must resist!

  6. Franziska November 16, 2016 at 12:14 pm #

    The need to reduce all energy used, reduce pollution and make our environment healthier is ever more urgent. National Geographic’s recent videos has made this ever clearer.
    We need to make “Mr. best negotiator” Trump aware of the strategic advantage we have by complying with COP21. They seem to be in LALA land with their facts.

  7. Brian Croston November 17, 2016 at 12:46 am #

    My interests in building science are driven by my own beliefs, not because of policies thrust on me by Obama or other global initiatives. That won’t change for me under a Trump administration any more than it would have with Clinton. If lasting changes are the goal, then it’ll have to be societal driven, not policy driven. For society right now, economics seem to outweigh ideals.

    I am building a ‘Pretty Good House’ with PV array in Montana, and while my house will cost +20% more than comparable code house, I will use 50% less energy and will be net-zero with PV. To suggest that it’s reasonable to require all new buildings be Passive House compliant at +100% the cost of code house is absurd. Perhaps a 20% improvement in envelope insulation and ACH50 below 1.0 on all new builds would be more effective and wouldn’t cripple the entire construction industry.

    • Ken November 17, 2016 at 6:01 am #

      Great to hear of your efforts! What we are seeing with Passive House uptick, are costs, initially between 5% and 15% more than conventional. Many multi-family projects are at 4% to 8% more. The expectation is that with scale the costs will quickly achieve parity and in many building types actually go negative. So there is a cost curve that needs to be run. The same with airtightness. Crews that initially struggled to hit 1ACH50 or even 2ACH50 are now regularly hitting .3ACH50. The construction industry doesn’t need to be crippled, it just needs to take a week or two of training. Good luck with your home!
      Best Wishes,

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