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Welcome!

Thanks for stopping by.   I treat this blog like a sketchbook where I can try out ideas and record the world around me.  Scroll down to see the possibilities.  

Here are links to some of the writing I’ve done over the last couple of years:

Landscape Architecture Education: Between Two Worlds

Landscape Architecture and the Green New Deal 

Post Carbon Landscape Architecture

Landscape Architecture and the Zero Generation

Climate Science Demands A Post Carbon Landscape Architecture

In The Climate Crisis, A Vision of Shade Cities

The Climate Report That Changes Everything for Landscape Architecture

Can We Get To Zero? Landscape Architecture Magazine

The Most Important Chart for the Future of Landscape Architecture

Pretty is not Beautiful: Reflections on Becoming and Landscape Architect 2ndedition 

Watch a presentation on these issues by Temple Landscape Architecture and me for the Pennsylvania/Delaware Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects

Really Dire News:

“The latest measurements released by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego  show that the atmospheric CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, are now at record levels. The average for March 2021 was 417.14 parts per million (ppm), which is 50% higher than the average for 1750-1800. Independent measurements by NOAA also show record CO2 levels. The Met Office predicts monthly CO2 concentrations in 2021 to peak at 419.5 ± 0.6 ppm in May (Figure 1). This is despite a temporary reduction in global emissions last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

From the UK MET

This is the decade that will define Pullman’s fate

By Steve Austin

Now that our political crisis has for the moment waned, we must urgently focus on the climate crisis.  Locally, we are one year into the decade that will define the fate of Pullman over the remainder of the 21st century. Unfortunately, we haven’t done much that science recommends to mitigate and adapt to the crisis. It is as if we are ignoring science.  Or worse.  This is ironic considering that Pullman was literally created to support the propagation of scientific knowledge. 

The climate crisis is accelerating.   2020 is tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record.  This follows the 2010s, which were the hottest decade on record.  Ice is melting across the planet at a rapidly increasing rate, in line with worst-case scenarios.  The heating is exacerbating epic weather disasters; last year there were 416 such events globally. 

Here, trends are making it likely that even “normal” summers on the Palouse will become incredibly hot.  And drier.  Rainfall is forecast to become more prevalent in winter and spring, with less in summer.  

These impacts will affect us all here, especially heat sensitive people, those on limited incomes who may not be able to afford cooling, and farmers.  More broadly, the crisis puts all life on this planet is under threat, including hundreds of millions of our fellow humans. 

Looking forward, scientists estimate warming of nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5C) by 2030, decades ahead of earlier projections, and representing the threshold of a “safe climate.”  Currently, the world is on track for 7 Fahrenheit of heating this century, which climate scientist Michael Mann says “would constitute the end of civilization as we know it.” 

In order to avert the worst impacts and potentially unstoppable heating, science is clear as to what must be done:  we must halve fossil fuel use by 2030 (less than 470 weeks from now) and then end all use within the following two decades. This is what justice demands.  It remains to be seen whether we will do what is morally right. 

It won’t be easy. Ending fossil fuels will fundamentally change everything in our lives.  They provide more than 80% of all energy use and we rely on them to power transportation systems, create materials deemed essential to modern life, and grow food.   

Ending fossil fuel use will expose Pullman’s deep vulnerabilities in at least two related areas.  First, our region is completely dependent on fossil fueled transportation.   Ending fossil fuels could leave us dangerously isolated. The second area relates to logistical provisions, especially food.  Pullman is at the end of a very long, fossil fueled supply chain. 

So, we know what’s causing the crisis and what’s needed to end it.   What have we done in Pullman so far? 

Not Much. 

Pullman’s new draft Comprehensive Plan contains not one mention of climate change in 243 pages. Absurdly, Washington’s current planning laws don’t require it.  But it seems important to have climate mentioned somewhere in the plan for the 20-year future of the community. 

We’ve fallen short in other areas as well. There are no plans for large scale local food production, shade tree planting, or zero carbon city operations. Development codes have not been revised to ensure neighborhoods will be habitable. No realistic transportation planning has occurred to ensure we remain connected to the rest of the world. Smaller, yet no less symbolic, downtown bike lanes were eliminated, sending an incorrect signal about future transportation. And there is no region-wide plan for ensuring justice for those most vulnerable to climate impacts. 

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson about a similar crisis, climate warnings are clear and stark, like a fire bell in the night. “The climate emergency is evolving faster than predicted,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said recently. “We must accelerate our response, with ambition and urgency.  This is the battle for our lives.” 

Are we in Pullman going to act on what science is telling us? 

10 myths about net zero targets and carbon offsetting, busted

Comment: Carbon neutrality targets are often not as ambitious as they sound, relying on problematic carbon offsets and unproven technologies By 41 scientists

The idea of carbon offsetting, which underpins so-called net zero targets, is founded on a number of myths.

In many cases, offsetting relies on capturing carbon in vegetation and soils. Such capacity is however limited and is needed to store carbon dioxide that we have already emitted.

Assumptions of future technologies and targets decades ahead delay immediate action. Countries and corporations must shift focus from distant net zero targets to real emissions reductions now.

The impacts of the climate crisis are becoming increasingly severe, everywhere. We are experiencing heat waves, floods, droughts, forest fires and sea level rise as a result of global heating. The average global temperature is rising at an unprecedented rate, rapidly diminishing the prospect of keeping global warming below 1.5C and with increasing risks of crossing irreversible tipping points.

In practice, however, net zero targets several decades into the future shift our focus away from the immediate and unprecedented emissions reductions needed. Net zero targets are generally premised on the assumption that fossil fuel emissions can be compensated for by carbon offsetting and unproven future technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But offsetting does not cancel out our emissions – yet action to do so is immediately needed.

There are a number of myths about net zero targets and carbon offsetting that must be dispelled. By revealing them, we aim to empower citizens, so that they can pressure governments and companies to create real solutions, here and now:

Myth 1: Net zero by 2050 is sufficient to solve the climate crisis. Misleading.

Major and unprecedented reductions in emissions are needed now. Otherwise, our current high emissions will consume the small remaining global carbon budget within just a few years. Net zero targets typically assume that it will be possible to deliver vast amounts of “negative emissions”, meaning removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through storage in vegetation, soils and rocks. However, deployment of the technologies needed for negative emissions at the required scale remains unproven, and should not replace real emissions reductions today.

Myth 2: We can compensate for fossil fuel emissions using so-called “nature-based solutions” (such as carbon sequestration in vegetation and soils). Misleading.

Continue reading “10 myths about net zero targets and carbon offsetting, busted”

The Palouse misses a great opportunity to get ready for zero carbon

This recent story from WSU’s student newspaper shows that the citizens of the USA have spent at least $200 million in upgrading a tiny airport. Unfortunately, these upgrades should have a short lifespan, as air travel is incompatible with what needs to happen to maintain a livable environment. The recent report entitled Absolute Zero, created by professors at the Cambridge University, shows why this is so. We must end using ALL fossil fuels within the next 22 decades. That means the end of air travel as neither electric airplanes or biofuel alternatives will be available at scale to maintain the current system.

Instead, we could have spent that $200 million creating an electrified transport system to connect us with the rest of Washington. Hopefully the vision and willpower – and money – to achieve that will be here soon or else the communities on the Palouse will be very, very isolated in the zero carbon future.

Justice Is 15-Minute Cities

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Image © Steve Austin (used with permission)

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA | Clinical Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington State University

The ravages of the pandemic and needed responses to the climate crisis are forcing new thinking about the goals of city planning.  Most recently, the idea of a “15 minute” city is emerging.  A 15-minute city is a one in which citizens can access all of their most basic, day-to-day needs within a 15-minute walk of their homes.  This wonderful vision of humane human habitats is surely where all of our cities need to get to.  Our challenge is to realize that we must make this happen with only what we have now; we cannot afford ecologically, economically, or in the name of justice to try and build utopia anew.

It is easy to see the allure of 15-minute cities. The benefits are enormous. Increasing walkability improves health and reduces air and noise pollution, while making communities physically safer by reducing automobile violence. Meeting the needs of walkable neighborhoods enables micro entrepreneurs to thrive.  15-minute cities facilitate more close and authentic social connections that make cities stronger and more resilient at a time when that is desperately needed.

And vitally, cities will become more beautiful, softer and greener when they are not just backdrops to cars speeding by.

Paris, France has become the highest profile city seeking to remake itself into a 15-minute city. Paris Mayor Anne Hildago recently tweeted in French, “This is the condition for the ecological transformation of the city, while improving the daily life of Parisians.” Her plan is to thoroughly mix landuses across neighborhoods, ending over 100 years of monoculture development, strengthening public transit to link neighborhoods across the city, and then to humanize streets so that walking and biking become the default modes of transportation.

This is the beginning of the post car city.

Its not just Paris.  Melbourne, Australia and Ottawa, Canada are moving toward 15- Continue reading “Justice Is 15-Minute Cities”

Climate Violence American Style: A Green New Deal Emission Blitz

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© Steve Austin (used with permission)

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA | Clinical Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington State University

As the climate crisis accelerates, many well-meaning people are energetically promoting grand visions under Green New Deal banners to prepare the US for a post carbon future. The visions are extremely appealing, covering seemingly vital needs such as clean energy, transportation, affordable housing, ecological restoration, with justice as a goal and creating in good jobs in the process.   Yet if we are not careful, all of these plans will come with an unbearable climate cost:  the embodied emissions inherent in the proposals represent nothing but an emission blitz that will only make the crisis worse.

It would be the height of injustice – but par for the American course – to unleash this emission blitz on the rest of the planet simply because we built everything wrong and waited too long to realize it.  Climate science doesn’t allow for a grace period in which the U.S. is afforded an opportunity to “finally get it right this time.”

The crisis is rapidly worsening.  An April 2020 study found that, without massive changes to our current emissions trajectory, 2°C of global warming is likely to be reached sometime around 2040 – less than 20 years.  Climate writer David Wallace Wells recently described the consequences of reaching that bleak temperature landmark: “more than 150 million additional people would die from the effects of pollution, storms that used to arrive once every century would hit every single year, and that lands that are today home to 1,5 billion people would become literally uninhabitable, at least by the standard of human history.”  According to climate scientist Joëlle Gergis,“the implications of this are unimaginable – we may witness planetary collapse far sooner than we once thought.”

A late 2019 study shows that Global heating has already triggered 9 of the 15 known tipping points of the planetary regulating system, potentially leading to a cascade of unstoppable, devastating climactic events.  These could destabilize living conditions over large swaths of the planet, causing immense human suffering and likely leading to sustained global military conflict over the coming decades. Leading climate scientists recently published a paper in the journal Naturethat concluded that “this is an existential threat to civilization.”

This relentless rush toward 2°C of global heating will set in motion “disastrous consequences” possibly beyond humanity’s control as preeminent climate scientist James Hansen and others concluded in a 2013 study. There is no doubt what the consequences will be.  According to writer Wen Stephensen in the book What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice, these consequences will be “to rob people, starting with the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet, of their land, their homes, their livelihoods, even their lives — and their children’s lives, and their children’s children’s lives.” He concludes:  “There’s a word for this: these are crimes. They are crimes against the earth, and they are crimes against humanity.”

Climate science is absolutely clear as to how to avoid this:  we must end all CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, land use change, ruminant animals and cement.  And further, we must do everything possible to draw down excess CO2 in the atmosphere.  Unfortunately, the UN climate report in 2018 that suggested we had until 2030 to reduce emissions by roughly half in order to limit warming to 1.5C has given us a false sense of time to address the problem.

This should now be apparent: there are no years left to reduce emissions – we must end them now.  On our current trajectory, the planet is heading towards 3C to 5C of additional heating this century.  Therefore the conception that we have any carbon budget leftis just monstrous. This means the end of sweeping high emission dreams of a better way, only the truth that any more emissions will perpetuate global climate violence and injustice.

How are any extravagant Green New Deal plans compatible with this? 

They aren’t. 

Certainly, the ideas contained in many iterations of the Green New Deal hold out exciting Continue reading “Climate Violence American Style: A Green New Deal Emission Blitz”

Zero Emissions Means The End Of Concrete: What In The Hell Will We Do?

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© Steve Austin (used with permission)

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA | Clinical Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington State University

The enormous carbon emissions associated with concrete are now forcing us to reckon with our urban future.  For 100 years we have used concrete to reshape the planet to suit the immediate needs of rapid urbanization.  Its use is so prevalent that it is, after water, the second most used substance on earth.  Concrete is so ubiquitous that it also seems that our imaginations have been encased in it as well, for few can imagine life without it.   Yet we must, because concrete is incompatible with the zero emission era. 

Over the last 100 years global urban population rose from under 10% to over 56%.  It is projected to grow to nearly 70% of humanity by 2050.  In the past, concrete was like magic in accommodating this explosive urban growth; there was almost nothing it couldn’t do. It is not an overstatement to say that concrete made the modern world. Without concrete, there would be few significant bridges, dams, large buildings, storm drainage, floodwalls, ports, and so much else.  As Jonathan Watts has written in The Guardian, concrete puts “roofs over the heads of billions, fortifying our defenses against natural disaster and providing a structure for healthcare, education, transport, energy and industry.”

But this has come at a great climate cost.  If cement – concrete’s prime ingredient – production were a country, it would be the world’s third largest CO2 emitter after China and the U.S., accounting for as much as 8% of annual global emissions.  There is no way for this number to improve much and it certainly cannot get to zero.  While there are some tweaks to lower emission intensity, cement cannot be made without carbon emissions. There is nothing– no technology, new material, or chemistry – that will miraculously appear and enable us to replace anywhere near the amount of concrete we use today. 

Cement emissions must end because the climate crisis is rapidly accelerating.  An April 2020 study found that, without massive changes to our current emissions trajectory, 2°C of global warming is likely to be reached sometime around 2040. According to climate scientist Joëlle Gergis, “the implications of this are unimaginable – we may witness planetary collapse far sooner than we once thought.”  Climate science is absolutely clear as to how to avoid this fate:  we must end all CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, land use change, ruminant animals and cement.  And further, we must rapidly draw down excess CO2 in the atmosphere.    

Obviously, we have a significant conundrum.  

Our civilization can decide that we cannot live without the benefits that concrete confers and that the devastating impacts of increasing global heating might be ameliorated Continue reading “Zero Emissions Means The End Of Concrete: What In The Hell Will We Do?”

Landscape Architecture Education 2020: Between Two Worlds

© Steve Austin (used with permission)

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA | Clinical Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington State University

For over 30 years in various capacities, I have taught the profession and craft of landscape architecture to university students.   Sharing my love and passion for landscape architecture with students has been one of the great joys of my life. The academic, professional, and community recognition they have received for their individual and team work gives me great personal satisfaction.  Yet with all this, I now wonder if I am adequately preparing my students for their future. 

Our current students will face challenges unlike any faced by previous generations. Anthropogenic destruction of life and life-support systems has pushed the planet into an ecological emergency.  Mass extinctions are accelerating.  Human encroachment into the last wild places has given us the global pandemic.  And from the ecological emergency arise social emergencies. The botched US response to that pandemic coupled with an already wildly unequal economy is likely to have created a depression that could last a decade.  At the same time, the protectors and purveyors of systemic racism in the US seem hell bent on ensuring the country disintegrates into violence and hatred rather than see any challenge to White rule for the benefit of corporations. 

Oh, almost forgot: 2020 is trending toward being the hottest year in recorded history, following the hottest decade in recorded history. Global heating has already triggered 9 of the 15 known tipping points of the planetary regulating system, potentially leading to a cascade of unstoppable, devastating climactic events. 

These could destabilize living conditions over large swaths of the planet, causing immense human suffering and likely leading to sustained global military conflict over the coming decades. Leading climate scientists recently published a paper in the journal Nature which concluded that “this is an existential threat to civilization.”

So yeah, today’s students got all that going for them, which is not nice. 

How are we addressing this as landscape architecture educators?  

While much of landscape architectural education is timeless, I fear it is not evolving as urgently as the emergency demands.  Much of today’s curriculum would be recognized by students of 50 years ago or longer and is suited for a planet and society that no longer exists.  The Anthropocene is not just another issue to address, rather it is a new era that requires new responses.   Continue reading “Landscape Architecture Education 2020: Between Two Worlds”

“Low Carbon” is still carbon: calling out mitigation denial

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA Clinical Asst. Professor, Washington State University @postcarbonsteve

Is it possible to fully acknowledge the climate crisis and its human causation and still be reluctant to embrace what science says is the solution? Many climate leaders exhibit the symptoms of this condition, described by climate scientist Kevin Anderson as “mitigation denial.”  Mitigation denial is evident in those who otherwise would never deny the reality of the crisis, but yet are not ready to accept the blindingly obvious answer: completely eliminating fossil fuels.  This is possible because “we fear the solutions more than the impacts,” says climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.  Anderson claims mitigation denial is “far more dangerous” than the denial of climate science. 

Mitigation denial is demonstrated by the emerging ubiquity of the term “low carbon.” (“Net zero” is another prominent one, but that’s for another time.) “Low carbon” implies that there is a way out of the crisis that includes fossil fueled carbon emissions, but just less than the current trajectory.  Examples abound of the term’s use, sounding similar to this podcast invitation:  “We’ll discuss the path to rebuild our cities and state in beautiful, imaginative, low-carbon ways.”  

In all this, “low carbon” is never defined, much less how it is to be achieved.  Instead, well-meaning folks share visions of a future that looks lot like an idealized present, where nothing needs to fundamentally change.  Essentially, the term “low carbon” signifies wishful thinking: “yes there is a problem, but we can get out of it by using somewhat less of the thing that got us into this problem and then we’ll all be better off.”