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Matthias Ruth Contributes to White House Report

May 14, 2014

Civil and Environmental Engineering professor Matthias Ruth co-authored two chapters of the Third National Climate Assessment, a report issued by the White House and covered by every major news outlet, including the New York Times, The Boston Globe, and CNN. The scientific report aims to inform the nation about the current status of the climate, as well as observed changes, and to help generate more sustainable and environmentally sound plans for the future. Prof. Ruth, a leader in the developing field of ecological economics and a professor in both the CEE Department and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, focused on the impact climate change has on infrastructure, urban systems, and the Northeast in his chapters of the report. Prof. Ruth’s work, recently highlighted by the university, stresses the opportunities for innovation and economic growth in response to the impact of climate change on the infrastructure.

Source: News @ Northeastern

A cur­sory look at the Third National Cli­mate Assess­ment released Tuesday by the National Cli­mate Assess­ment and Devel­op­ment Advi­sory Com­mittee yields a grim out­look. The authors state that cli­mate change is already begin­ning to impact nearly every sector of the economy—and that’s not all: It’s already threat­ening human health and well being and adversely affecting our infra­struc­tures, our water resources, our crops, our live­stock, and our nat­ural ecosys­tems. What’s more, plan­ning efforts to adapt and mit­i­gate the problem are facing serious limitations.

But North­eastern pro­fessor Matthias Ruth, who co-​​authored two chap­ters of the nearly-1,200 page report, isn’t pes­simistic. As a leader in the emerging field of eco­log­ical eco­nomics, Ruth focuses his work on building bridges across sec­tors and dis­ci­plines to tackle the growing problem of cli­mate change, espe­cially in urban set­tings and he’s hopeful that this approach will bear fruit.

Some people will look at the report, he said, and panic about the costs of dealing with cli­mate change. Others will worry about the costs if we don’t deal with it imme­di­ately. “And then there’s a third group, and that’s the one I’d love to see speak up,” said Ruth, who holds appoint­ments in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the Depart­ment of Civil and Envi­ron­mental Engi­neering. “They are the ones who don’t talk about the cost—they are the smart busi­ness people who say, ‘wow, there’s an oppor­tu­nity here.’”

The chap­ters to which Ruth con­tributed focused on the impact of cli­mate change on infra­struc­tures, urban sys­tems, and the north­eastern United States. The report’s col­lab­o­ra­tive approach, he said, which focused on con­vening experts from a wide range of dis­ci­plines in industry, gov­ern­ment, and acad­emia, is exactly the kind of mea­sure we must con­tinue to employ.

Everything’s interrelated—power, trans­porta­tion, water—and they all have impli­ca­tions for public health,” Ruth said. “So one big take home mes­sage is that we need to begin to manage these as inter­re­lated sys­tems.” That mes­sage has come to the fore­front in this report, the third since 1990, when con­gress passed the Global Change Research Act man­dating reg­ular cli­mate assessments.

The other big mes­sage is that cli­mate change is not a topic of the future, Ruth said, noting that “It’s already hap­pening and every U.S. cit­izen is affected.” This is evi­dent, he said, in the increased number of heat waves in north­eastern cities such as Boston, in the dete­ri­o­ra­tion of our infra­struc­tures, and in changes to bio­di­ver­sity in our ecosystems.

And busi­ness as usual won’t change the trend. “We draw on ever­more depleted resources from all around the world to afford our lifestyles,” Ruth said. “We should be smarter than that.”

He said instead of putting up sea walls and other hard struc­tures with mate­rials from far away, we need to think about incor­po­rating salt marshes and oyster beds along urban coast­lines, as they can nat­u­rally help mit­i­gate floods as storm surges increase. Instead of designing build­ings for a cli­mate of a hun­dred years ago, we need to think of alter­na­tives to the flat black roofs that trap heat. Instead of thinking about our infra­struc­ture sys­tems as sep­a­rate and con­tained, we need to imagine ways that water, energy, and trans­porta­tion can work together to absorb the impacts of a changing climate.

Luckily, Ruth said, “This is the country where this hap­pens. We pride our­selves on this entre­pre­neurial spirit of mobi­lizing resources and having the mar­ket­place help sup­port these deci­sions.” He envi­sions a world where we take all this dis­parate knowl­edge and create some­thing new, a world where the tra­di­tional engi­neering methods work in unison with our local ecosystems—all sup­ported by data and new innovations.

With the world largely urban­ized now, if we can figure out here how to make that tran­si­tion to more sus­tain­able urban living,” Ruth said, “I think we have a great busi­ness oppor­tu­nity, but also a great human­i­tarian oppor­tu­nity for other parts of the world.”