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Climate Change Adaptation in Action


Article by Guest blogger and UMN graduate student Kerry Wang

I had the privilege of attending the Minnesota Climate Adaptation conference last week, thanks to sponsorship from Sustainability Education. Minnesota is consistently ranked as one of the top three fastest warming states in the nation, so it’s no wonder a conference like this brought together so many leaders in politics, business, and thought.

There were two plenary sessions in the day, one with a business panel representing some big companies based in Minnesota (General Mills, 3M, and Best Buy) and one with a mayor’s panel representing St. Paul, Bemidji, Falcon Heights, St Louis Park. By and large, the plenary sessions were pretty similar. Basically everyone described how climate change is already affecting their companies/cities and the steps they’ve taken to try to adapt. The businesses consistently remarked on how severe weather events and uncertain climate futures affect their supply chain and ability to get their products to their customers. Mayors also mentioned adaptation to severe weather and increases in invasive species. They also touted their adherence to various sustainability pledges and programs such as the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement and GreenStep cities. It was really great to see these representatives from Minnesota businesses and cities are taking climate adaption seriously.

I also went to two breakout sessions: one of Climate Communication and one on Energy.

Energy Panel:

  • Jodi Slick – founder of Ecolibrium
  • White House champion of change
  • Peter Dahl – Architectural engineer with HGA Architects and Engineers
  • Ken Smith – Pres/CEO of St Paul District and Ever-Green Energy, background in electrical engineering and business administration

There was a very clear theme that developed in the Energy panel. Though none of the panelists had met each other previously, each ended up emphasizing the importance of building resiliency through interconnectedness. Let me elaborate…In most municipalities, buildings and utilities planned with each system implemented independently. Need electricity? Build a power plant. Need heat? Build a steam plant. Need sewage treatment? Build a sewer system. Standalone systems with narrow operating limits may work if your environment is stable and predictable, but as the planet warms, climate scientists routinely warn us that we should expect more unpredictable weather, sometimes seen as increase in frequency and/or intensity of severe weather events. If our infrastructure is already being stressed today, how can we expect it to hold up to greater uncertainty in environmental conditions in the future? You could over-design everything and build wasteful redundancy in, but that would require unreasonable amounts physical and financial resources.

Before we talk about how to build resiliency, it’s probably helpful to define what we mean by resilience first. Ken laid out some excellent criteria for building sustainable and resilient communities. They are communities that:

  • Are adaptable and flexible
  • Can bend and not break
  • Recover quickly from failure
  • Are ever-advancing and evolving
  • Intentional
  • Have symbiotic and interdependent systems that rely on local resources rather than monolithic centralized resources

The criteria are hard to meet with standalone, centralized systems. By having interconnected systems, however, parts of the system can give and take when needed. Think of your body and all the interconnected systems it has. After you eat a meal, your body needs extra resources for digesting your food. You don’t need a dedicated blood transfusion after every meal; naturally your body just diverts blood flow to your digestive system (which is why sometimes you feel cold after eating a big meal). Being able to give and take is built into the system.

Here are some examples of using interconnectedness to build resiliency the panel discussed.

  • Example: University Avenue District. For a street with sewage mains running under it, the sewer system can act as both a heat source and sink. Heat loops can be set up through buildings along the street for heating (for cold months) and cooling (for warmer months).
  • Example: Rice Creek Commons in Arden Hills. There is a site with large soil contamination of some pollutant. Because the land is not used, it can be an excellent opportunity to use solar power with minimal interference. This energy can also be used to pump water up, strip off pollutants, and dispensed deeper in the ground to recharge aquifers. This set up can generate clean electricity while gradually cleansing the soil of pollutants.

And here are some examples how linear, standalone systems can be so very inefficient and fragile:

  • Steam plants without looped water. Right now, there are steam plants in the North Shore that take in lake water at 30-40 °F, heat it up to steam (>212 °F), distribute to surrounding buildings, and discharge the water at 195 °F. Think about how much more efficient this whole process would be if we simply looped that 195 °F water back to the boiler to recirculate throughout the buildings. Not to mention, if this were a closed loop, these plants would likely be able to control the purity of the water/steam they’re sending around the buildings better, which could better maintain the health of the piping infrastructure.
  • Failure of centralized power. In the last 5 years, 80% of Americans lived in a county with a presidentially-declared disaster. As many know Duluth, MN suffered huge flooding events in 2012. Those floods knocked out power lines, leaving thousands without electricity. At the time, tens of thousands of solar panels were in the area but were unable to distribute power because they were connected to the grid. This highlights the need to be flexible in accommodating local resources.

When asked, “What are barriers to building more interconnectedness?”, each of the panelists offered some valuable insights. Peter, the architectural engineer, said that owners of buildings with existing systems are often reluctant to integrate into something new. Ken echoed this, saying that there is significant inertia in the status quo: architects, city planners, decision makers are so used to doing things a certain way. Building standalone systems is so straightforward and simple, why change? Jodi points out planning for resiliency means we can’t be planning for what’s worked in the past; we have to plan for the future. One barrier she also noted was based in human psychology: we’ve got to plan systems that are easy to make upgrades and take the next steps because whenever you don’t know what the next step is, most people default to inaction.

While the topic of the panel was supposed to be “Energy”, one great aspect of this session was that everyone understood that energy is in fact interconnected with every other aspect of society. Jodi mentioned areas to measure resilience in addition to energy: in housing, economy, natural resources, and health. When we look to building a resilient state for an uncertain future, the systems perspective that emphasizes connectivity, non-linearity, and dynamicism is a significant paradigm shift from the linear, standalone ways of thinking our infrastructure is built on today. This will require significant outreach and communication with decision makers to show them how important the systems perspective is in planning for resiliency and why we can’t rely on simple, linear ways of thinking. Today, people are trained to specialize in narrow topics, with little communication between fields. We are sheltered in our silos, or “cylinders of excellence” as Jodi jokingly referred to them as, a sarcastic euphemism to describe this segregation of thought.

Overall, I am optimistic. The future is uncertain, but to build the resiliency we need, we’ve got to break out of our “cylinders of excellence”, talk to each other, understand the challenges we face holistically from multiple perspectives, leverage each of our strengths, and keep our eyes open for opportunities to build interdependence and flexibility. Ken mentioned that we ought to rethink how we train undergraduate students to approach problem-solving holistically with emphasis on interdisciplinary cooperation. “Universities have known this. Professors have known this. But it’s still really hard to change this entire system,” he said. It looks like we’re making progress, though. The University’s Grand Challenges Curriculum (GCC) exactly attempts to address this problem by connecting research from across the campus (see video below). The GCC also includes a number of courses designed to bring together students of all majors to look at complex problems. It also looks like students are connecting more each other across the University of Minnesota campuses through conferences like AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education) and other activities like the SELF sustain retreats (SELF = Student Engagement Leadership Forum). This is a perfect time to put in a plug for the club I’m involved in, the UMN Energy Club, which aims provide a space for students to learn from and teach each other about all aspects of energy and climate: technology, policy, economics, ecology, sociology, public health, etc.

We have a lot of work to do: we’ll need to abandon our old ways of segregated, linear thinking. No single expert is going to be the hero to save the day. The good news: If we’re going to take on climate change with grace, we need only do what humans naturally do best: cooperative problem-solving.

Kerry is a PhD candidate in Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, working in Jeff Derby’s research group. His projects involve mathematical modeling of crystal growth processes for applications in solar energy, geophysics, and nuclear detection. He is also a current co-president of UMN Energy Club, a student organization devoted to preparing the next generation of leaders in energy and climate by building interdisciplinary communication and collaboration and breaking through the silos of academia.

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