Father of LEED: Humans 'blissfully unaware' of coming climate crisis

Rob Watson, founder of the USGBC's LEED rating system, says humans need to wake up and reduce their environmental impact -- or suffer the planet's consequences.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on

NEW YORK -- Rob Watson stood up, strode toward the podium, turned 180 degrees on his heels, scanned the audience, let out a deep sigh, and said:

"We're a little bit in denial about how bad things are."

His voice, normally booming, trailed off, as his upper lip raised up in disgust with the words he just uttered. His gaze dropped to the row of people immediately in front of him. He let out another sigh.

It's not the first time Watson has given this speech. As the chief executive of consulting firm EcoTech International but far better known as the "founding father" of the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED ratings system, it won't be the last, either.

But this time, he was talking to a boardroom full of corporate executives, analysts and press, in attendance for an IBM "Smarter Buildings" event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In other words, people who could make change happen.

Which also means he was preaching to the choir. And the inherent lack of shock value in his words was killing him.

"Disillusionment is a very important thing we have to learn," he said, shifting his weight. Our species is about to find itself in the wilderness with no excuses, he said, and we mustn't forget how unforgiving nature is to things that don't fit in.

"Nature is completely amoral," he warned.

Smoothing his suit jacket, Watson pressed on. Likening the coming environmental reckoning as a "reality check" on par with the sinking of the Titanic, Watson said the global population were not unlike the passengers on that fated ship -- in utter disbelief that the boat was actually sinking.

Refusing the "short term pain" of getting on a rickety lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Suffering from the longer-term consequences of staying comfortable until the very last moment.

"Whether we like it or not, S.S. Business-as-usual has already hit the iceberg," he said. "And we just don't quite know it yet."

"We are blissfully unaware."

Sensing the melodrama of his analogy, Watson changed course, choosing a more comfortable metaphor for the business executives in the room.

"The business of the planet is supporting life," he said. "What are we, as a subsidiary of Planet Co., doing to sustain life? We are impairing every other business unit to do its job. As a business owner, what do you do to underperforming assets? Get rid of 'em."

"If we don't stop fooling ourselves, we're in for a real butt-kicking."

Part of the problem is that the green movement sees itself as "saving the planet," Watson said. But it's not the planet that needs saving -- it's us. Today, for every acre of land that is arable and fertile and productive, two acres are degraded -- overgrazed, deforested and denuded, he said. Last year, 40 percent of the world's coral reefs were in a "seriously degraded" situation.

Who's fault is that? Ours, he said. Humans need to be saved from themselves, lest we perish from our own "fractal stupidity."

"There's no energy crisis on the planet," he said. "Every day, the sun comes up and provides 15 minutes of daylight the equivalent of enough energy to power the world for an entire year. The only thing there's a shortage of is how to harness that."

Part of the problem: we incentivize unsustainable, environmentally-hostile activity. We penalize renewables with higher market prices. The market doesn't like it? Too bad. Change the business model, and change the way people think, Watson said.

He rattled off a few statistics to underscore his point:

  • Three-tenths of 1 percent of world's water is available to us. A small percentage of that is water we can actually drink.
  • World energy demand will grow by 50 percent in 25 years.
  • Thirty percent of U.S. CO2 emissions are from transport. Twenty-two percent are from non-materials industry. The remaining 48 percent are from buildings and building materials.
  • The carbon emissions problem is accelerating; we're already at 100ppm/yr over pre-industrial times. 275ppm vs. 393 ppm.

"There's a perfectly safe fusion reactor [93 million] miles from the planet. We know when it's going to start up and power down," he said.

He added: "The planet does not need you...there is absolutely nothing we can do to this planet that, in a million years -- two ticks of a second to the planet -- won't be obliterated. We need to get over ourselves."

It starts by using that most unique of human abilities: the capacity to plan. If we take this information and use it intelligently -- instead of ignoring it -- we can stop ourselves from being the "villain" and instead "be the hero in our own movie," he said.

If we don't, and climate change reaches "a tipping point," we'll no longer have the power to change things.

"We do not have recourse," he said sternly. "We cannot negotiate with nature."

But addressing the low-hanging fruit begins with more intelligent buildings.

"Green buildings are rocket science. Buildings are profoundly complicated. We need to be thinking of them as essentially spaceships. We need a space program for buildings," he said.

The building of the future? Self-monitoring and reacting, with power plants, reservoirs, sewage treatment plants and even farms inside, according to Watson. Entirely self-sufficient and dense.

"People want green," he said. "Green makes the most sense."

But if politics and the status quo continue to trump science, humans are in for a rude awakening, he said.

"We're going to be a bad biological experiment. Nobody's going to shed a tear except maybe our relatives," he said, reflexively gripping the podium. "We can lead from any seat in the orchestra. Maybe the building sector [is it]."

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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