If you thought Hurricane Katrina was bad, consider this scenario described at a conference on Albuquerque’s energy future: As greenhouse gases from fossil fuels cause the earth’s temperature to rise in the future, oceans deepen – possibly by dozens of feet – with glacial melt-off.
People in cities on the oceans’ edges, such as New Orleans and New York, would be forced to move as their homes and businesses flooded.
“There will be literally millions of people on the move in the United States,” said Ed Mazria, founder of the architecture firm Mazria Inc. Odems Dzurec and expert on energy-efficient building design. “Today we have a choice. . . . We can continue on our present course or we can choose another path.”
Possible paths to a future powered by sustainable and environmentally friendly energy sources were discussed Thursday at the two-day conference attended by political, business and scientific leaders from around the state and country.
New Mexico can lead the way, Mazria said, and the journey can start with building design.
The problem is buildings’ appetite for fossil fuels. Nationwide, buildings make up 48 percent of energy consumption, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration statistics cited by Mazria.
“Heating, lighting and cooling are the big three,” he said. “Globally, the percentage is even greater.”
That makes buildings powered by fossil fuels one of the greatest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, Mazria said. Many scientific studies have shown the gases contribute to global warming.
Cutting back on buildings’ energy consumption, he said, can be as simple as designing them to better use the heat and light of the sun. Other technologies, such as solar power panels, can help, too.
“But you start first with the low hanging fruit, which is design out as much as you can,” he said.
By the year 2030, he and Architecture 2030, a movement sponsored by the nonprofit New Energy Economy out of Santa Fe, hope to see buildings consume zero fossil fuels.
“There are lots of ways to do it,” he said. “Albuquerque can take a leadership role.”
As a guiding philosophy for energy use, Mazria said any decision should be judged by how it will impact people seven generations into the future.
“If your action is good for that generation, then do it,” he said. “If your action is not good for that generation, then don’t take that action.”
But he warned other cities have to join in the effort to redefine energy consumption, or it will be for naught.
Kurtis Helvie, a 15-year-old freshman at High Tech High School in Albuquerque who attended the conference with several of his classmates, said the country needs to change its approach to energy use.
“I think if we don’t start changing our ways, it’s going to be deadly,” he said, and in comparison to problems caused by fossil fuels, “we’ll think Katrina was nothing.”
Conference attendee Cory Johnson, 14, said some of his peers lack knowledge about the environmental issues surrounding global warming.
“I don’t think they even really understand the full consequences of it,” he said. “They know that global warming is going on, but they’re just sort of fine with it. They’re like, `Oh, one degree celsius, what is that?’ ”
Education about energy – where it comes from, its costs and consequences of its use – will be an important part of Albuquerque’s future, according to one conference panel that brainstormed how the Duke City could evolve into a sustainability leader by 2015.
A classroom for such lessons could be stores, according to Bruce Milne, professor of biology at the University of New Mexico and director of the UNM Sustainability Program.
He proposed adding information to product labels that describe how much energy it took to make and transport a product.
It’s called embodied energy. It accounts for factors such as the fuel consumed to ship a product, and the energy expended assembling and refining the product’s raw materials.
“When you go to the shopping mall, you don’t have any clue as to which products embody a lot of energy and which don’t,” he said. “You can’t make choices based on the environmental impact that particular product has.”
Other changes are simpler to make.
As Milne left the empty panel room for a lunch break with two others, he stopped and, with a laugh, headed back.
“We should turn off the lights,” he said.