News & Events | Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future

Beyond Practice

June 10, 2016

Martha Schwartz, DSc, FASLA, Hon FRIBA, Hon RDI, RAAR
Principal, Martha Schwartz Partners
Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

This presentation was part of the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s The New Landscape Declaration: A Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future held in Philadelphia on June 10-11, 2016. Each of the 25 invited speakers was asked to write a 1,000-word “Declaration” of leadership and ideas for how landscape architecture can make its vital contribution in response to the challenges of our time and the next 50 years. These Declarations were then presented at the Summit.


Beyond Practice: Landscape Architects and the Global Eco-Crisis

By Martha Schwartz and Edith Katz

I believe the scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is now indisputable. James Hansen, the leading climate scientist previously from NASA, respected for many predictions that have proven to be true, recently issued a grim warning that we are nearing the point of no return when it comes to reversing or even mitigating the adverse effects of climate change.

Here are several alarming facts that provide evidence that global warming is upon us and happening faster than predicted:

  1. 2015 was the warmest year on record, and this past decade is the warmest since 1880.
  2. In November of 2015, a 1°C planetary rise in temperature was officially acknowledged (but widely believed to be conservative), the halfway mark to the 2°C  target or safe limit to avoid catastrophic global warming.
  3. Easter Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) methane is being released — the most threatening fact of all.

We have exceeded the projected tipping point of 350ppm CO2 and are now at 400 ppm, heating up our land, air, ice and oceans with the equivalence of 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day. Global ocean temperatures are now 1°C higher than 140 years ago. The heated Arctic Ocean is causing the permafrost of the ESAS to melt, releasing methane, a gas 20-30 times more potent than CO2 as a heat trapping gas, into the atmosphere. There are such massive reserves of methane in the subsea Arctic, that if only a small percent is released, it can lead to a jump in the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere by 10°C.

Recent observations in the Siberian arctic show increased rates of methane escaping from the seabed now. These facts have produced a very plausible scientific prediction of a catastrophic release, or “bubble”, of methane occurring abruptly or in coming decades. Such a release could have an exponentially amplifying effect on global warming, launching catastrophic scenarios more rapidly than we had anticipated.

Previously, the LAF Declaration of Concern correctly predicted and responded to the environmental crisis of 1966 with a vision 50 years ago. The ecological planning initiatives and educational goals that were projected have been accomplished. However, at this point we confront a drastic new challenge. In 1966 these visionaries could not foresee globalization or the population explosion with corresponding fossil fuel use and consumption that have outstripped all our profession’s good intentions and achievements regarding sustainable development through responsible design.

I no longer believe that the work we do as individual, responsible practitioners, will be able to effectively contribute to averting this long-predicted crisis because we are entering a state of emergency. We do not have another 50 years, or, perhaps even 15. I sadly conclude that our excellent professional practices will become irrelevant in the face of global warming, a problem whose magnitude we are now confronting. I do not advocate ceasing our professional excellence or carrying out our individual duties as responsible practitioners. But my message today is: We must go beyond landscape architecture practice in order to broach this critical environmental crossroad.

The question before us all is: What can be done to keep this scenario from playing out? What can we do as a group of people whose ethos is to steward our natural environment since the impacts are coming much sooner than expected?

My Declaration is for a collective call to action. We must advocate for funding the development and testing of a portfolio of geo-technologies to counteract man-made global warming until the required reductions in CO2 emissions are reached and we have transitioned to sustainable energy economies.

As a first priority, we should develop techniques to cool the Arctic because the possibility of a major methane release triggered by melting Arctic ice constitutes a planetary emergency. There are technologies that have been proposed for rapidly cooling the arctic on the necessary scale in the form of solar radiation management (SRM). We should be investing in research and development towards this goal immediately.

At the same time, we must focus upon measures that can reduce existing quantities of atmospheric CO2 by carbon dioxide removal (CDR) processes to lower the pollutant level and warming effects.

Finally, as cutting global greenhouse gas emissions must remain an urgent priority, reducing emissions from existing, new and proposed carbon power stations, particularly coal plants, with carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques must be rigorously pursued.

Scientists have conceived various methods and new ones may be discovered to achieve these goals, so it is very likely to be technically feasible. But much more research and testing is needed before deployment. I believe that science can help us out of this imminent and dire situation in order to buy time so that the longer term goal of zero carbon emissions can eventually be achieved.

I therefore urge our professional organizations to create a political wing with a forceful agenda to persuade our decision-makers and politicians to support bold research to save our planet’s atmosphere through technologies that can prevent arctic methane release plus sequester and capture carbon dioxide. We must exert pressure on our government to fund the equivalent of a “Manhattan Project for Climate Change Mitigation”, in response to a clear and present environmental danger we are now facing especially with regards to arctic methane release. This political agenda should also have a focussed social media voice. It is now through these modalities that political change can occur. Petitions and signatures impel those in power to exert the voice of the people. This is today’s version of “taking to the streets.” We must become online warriors.

We are a well-educated, knowledgeable group who have the status to influence people. Together, we have the power to create awareness about this environmental emergency and make change. I further propose that we, as a group of dedicated landscape architects, immediately embark upon a hyper-aggressive climate campaign that should be owned by the two most important professional organizations that represent us: the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and the Landscape Architecture Foundation(LAF). We must urge these two organizations to officially recognize the gravity of the situation and align with and give our support to other actionable networks like, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Artic News, and Arctic Emergency Group among others, who are working heroically and aggressively on climate change policy and action.

Finally, ASLA has a lobby in Washington, D.C. We must exercise the full amount of intellectual authority and political influence we have to strategically advance climate rescue.

In summary, I am suggesting we shift our priorities from individual practice to group political action so as to impel our government to:

  1. Forge an international effort to cool the Arctic, suppress methane and aggressively remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
  2. Take immediate and extremely drastic action to entirely curb global carbon dioxide emissions.
  3. Evolve rapidly towards completely renewable energy resources.

I have hope that the world’s best scientists will find ways to buy us the gift of time so that we can avert the swift intensification of climate change. Then we will be given a second chance to learn to live in balance with the earth. But, we must act, together NOW.