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‘A contradiction’: U.S. subsidizes ‘sustainable’ buildings, but leaves them vulnerable to floods

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Monday, September 25, 2023

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It was the kind of extreme weather event that happened all too often this year: On an unseasonably warm day, more than two feet of rain inundated the city, flooding hundreds of cars and buildings, including a recently constructed luxury apartment tower that touts its sustainability credentials to prospective tenants. Shaped like a massive bow tie, the 18-story Vu New River is gray and white with navy blue accents. Water quickly flooded its palm tree-lined rooftop patio, streamed into upper-floor apartments and coursed down the building's elevator shaft, with some even splashing into the neon-lit lobby. The deluge shocked tenants who thought the building was fully equipped to handle the changes wrought by global warming. But like a ship that is deemed unsinkable, the Vu New River is one of hundreds of recently constructed structures certified as sustainable that is nonetheless vulnerable to the very forces it seeks to combat. The gleaming tower is one of more than 58,000 construction projects in the United States that have been specially certified as meeting the standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council, a three-decade-old nonprofit that works to make buildings and communities better for the environment and the people who live or work in them. The main way the Green Building Council does that is via its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification system, which the group describes as "a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement." LEED certification is subsidized or required by more than 350 local and state governments as well as the U.S. General Services Administration, which manages the vast federal building stock. But the influential rating system largely overlooks the growing impacts of climate change, despite increasingly frequent and severe climate-related disasters as well as years of warnings from former Green Building Council officials. As a result, the Green Building Council has affixed its coveted three-leafed seal to more than 800 new buildings in the past decade that are at extreme risk of flooding, according to an analysis by POLITICO's E&E News and the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that models likely climate impacts. That means those "green" buildings have up to a 50 percent chance every year of flood waters reaching at least their lowest point, according to a review First Street did at the request of E&E News. Of that group of structures, historic storm modeling indicates that more than 130 were constructed or overhauled on sites that likely flooded at least once in recent decades. And anecdotal evidence from Fort Lauderdale suggests those figures could actually understate the magnitude of the problem for LEED buildings, some of the nation's most costly and desirable facilities: The Vu and the Broward County Addiction Recovery Center – another Green Building Council-blessed project in town that was damaged by the April 12 deluge – were not among the 830 LEED buildings that First Street found are most at risk. First Street's peer-reviewed models are based on open-source government data as well as United Nations-vetted climate projections. Its modeling is relied upon by insurance companies and real estate firms as well as the departments of Treasury, Commerce and other federal agencies. E&E News discussed the findings with nearly two dozen architects, city planners and policy experts. The analysis, several experts said, suggests that tens of millions of tax dollars have been directed toward new projects that may need to be repeatedly repaired or even abandoned before the end of their expected life span, raising questions about whether some green buildings are truly sustainable. More importantly, the LEED process and the tax breaks involved could be a crucial tool for preparing man-made structures for climate-related disasters — one that is being squandered today. "It's a contradiction to call something sustainable if it's also prone to hazards like flood," said Samuel Brody, the director of Texas A&M University's Institute for a Disaster Resilient Texas. The Green Building Council needs "to better educate developers and tenants on the importance of not just being energy efficient but being resilient to these disturbances like floods," he said. "Because we don't want to put people in harm's way." The Green Building Council, and the sustainable architecture movement it helped catalyze, emerged in the U.S. in the 1990s amid growing awareness that the burning of fossil fuels could intensify the types of catastrophic impacts the world is now experiencing — from the unprecedented wildfire on Maui to the deadly flooding in Libya. Originally the group focused on the energy use of buildings, with a goal of maximizing efficiency and minimizing planet-warming carbon emissions. Over the years, the Green Building Council has expanded its focus to include measures intended to create buildings that are also more pleasant for the people in them, such as reducing the use of toxic chemicals and increasing air filtration and circulation. Over time, these designations have become the gold standard for climate-friendly architecture: States and municipalities offer hundreds of programs to reward developers who agree to follow LEED standards, while renters and buyers look for the designation as a way to satisfy their own desire for a sustainable lifestyle. The rating system can also influence regulators, pushing some to strengthen local building codes. As such, LEED standards have become a powerful tool in the nation's efforts to reduce climate pollution from the commercial and residential sector, which is tied for the largest source of emissions when factoring in electricity use. But the Green Building Council has struggled to internalize the lessons from recurring climate-related disasters. From hurricanes Sandy to Maria, those incidents have shown that some new buildings can quickly go from healthy to hazardous if they lose power or water. Efforts to plan for the potential impacts of major storms have instead been downplayed by the Green Building Council as a distraction for its core sustainability mission, according to some former members, including a past board member. "Resilience hasn't really been a significant part of the LEED program since its inception," said Alex Wilson, who served on the group's board in 2000 when it publicly launched the ratings system. "I pushed the council pretty hard to much more actively address resilience," he said. "I've been disappointed that that hasn't happened yet." The Green Building Council, whose members include many building companies, acknowledged that the LEED system doesn't currently force those developers to consider the growing threats posed by climate change and suggested that modifications could be made when the rules are updated in the next few years. "We have to look at flooding, we have to look at hazards. I am not disagreeing with you at all on that," said Melissa Baker, a senior vice president at the group. "But we are balancing it with, where do we put time and points towards energy efficiency, towards carbon," she said of the scorecard-based system. "As adaptation becomes much more present, front of mind — it's obviously critical given what's been going on — we may see that balance shift. And that's something that we're working on now." Wilson, who has been making the case for resilient design for more than a decade, isn't convinced that the Green Building Council is ready to give the critical issue the attention it deserves. "I keep hoping I'll see signs of that and haven't yet," he said. The lack of resiliency standards is especially frustrating, some designers say, because there are a range of things architects and developers can do to prepare for and quickly recover from flooding. Relatively simple improvements include elevating a building's foundations, designing a "washout" floor that can be easily cleaned and dried after floodwaters recede, and placing vital equipment like electrical and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems on the second floor. Then there are more challenging measures like installing on-site renewable energy and storage systems or backup water treatment operations that can keep buildings up and running, even when the grid goes down. But those cautionary steps either cost more upfront or involve some difficult tradeoffs. They are not likely to be taken if project designers and their clients aren't incentivized by local regulators or the LEED system to construct buildings that can withstand the threats posed by an ever hotter and more dangerous world. "Building codes are boring as hell but they actually matter greatly, in terms of our safety and avoiding loss and damage," said Alice Hill, who during the Obama administration served as the National Security Council's resilience policy chief. "Until we get these codes right, we're going to see a lot more destruction." The findings come as the Biden administration, the Green Building Council and other groups are working to make U.S. buildings more resilient. The White House last year launched an initiative that aims to help state and local governments adopt the latest building codes. Forty states and U.S. territories haven't updated their building codes since 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported in April. Meanwhile, the Green Building Council and the International Code Council, an influential nonprofit group that creates model building codes for local governments to use, say they are both working to integrate resiliency features into their offerings. But LEED standards aren't likely to be updated until 2025, at the soonest. The code council didn't give a clear timeline for its next overhaul. "If these voluntary organizations establish clear guidance and standards for resiliency, it could reduce loss to the United States. There's no question about it," said Hill, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a centrist think tank. "It's a missed opportunity because we don't have those standards and guidance in place. And so then we construct buildings that are destined to flood or burn." The LEED rating system began as a pilot project in 1998, five years after the Green Building Council was formed by an environmental lawyer, a real estate developer and a marketing executive at the air conditioning company Carrier. They worked with a scientist at the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council to develop the ratings system. The system is based on a scorecard of actions that architects, builders and developers can take to earn points toward certification and hopefully increase the environmental sustainability of their projects. The scorecards and points available vary slightly depending on whether the project is to, for instance, build a hospital, renovate an office or plan a new city. But nearly all of the new construction scorecards promote actions like sourcing renewable energy from the grid and minimizing water use, as well as including bicycle facilities and creating "quality views" from throughout the building. Some actions, such as the storage and collection of recyclables, are required. LEED certifications are awarded to projects at four point-based levels: At the top is the Green Building Council's platinum seal, followed by gold and silver. The entry level is simply certified. It took until 2004 for the industry-led nonprofit group to sign off on its first 100 LEED projects. Last year, the cumulative total topped 100,000, with certified projects on every continent except Antarctica. Over the decades, the Green Building Council has regularly updated LEED — sometimes to address publicized shortcomings in the program. For example, media outlets repeatedly found that some certified green projects consumed more energy than comparable buildings. Following those reports, the Green Building Council in 2015 required new LEED buildings to provide the group with information on their first few years of energy consumption. The Green Building Council hasn't taken the same decisive steps to integrate climate adaptation into its sustainability rating system. That's despite a growing realization in the architecture field that building practices need to change in response to the ever-warming world. The first wakeup call for designers was in 2005 when a Category 3 hurricane — with sustained winds estimated at 120 mph and a storm surge of at least 25 feet high — slammed into southeast Louisiana. In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina trapped tens of thousands of people in flooded and powerless homes for weeks while also knocking offline nearly all of the city's health and safety facilities. Amid the sweltering August heat, more than 540 hurricane victims died from acute and chronic illnesses that likely "would have been prevented had emergency and hospital services been undisrupted following the storm," according to a 2014 study by the state of Louisiana. "Katrina caught everybody's attention," said Douglas Pierce, the resilient design director at Perkins&Will, the world's second-largest architecture firm. The focus of the sustainable design field began "shifting beyond trying to stop climate change to actually having to say, 'climate change is here and we need to deal with it.'" At the Green Building Council's annual conference that November, Wilson and some 160 other participants — including representatives from in and around New Orleans — put together a policy paper intended to help make the post-Katrina planning and rebuilding efforts more equitable and environmentally sustainable. The recommendations included "shifting development from regions of the city at the highest risk of future flooding" and designing or repairing buildings in other areas "to serve as livable refuges in the event of crisis or breakdown of energy, water, and sewer systems." "The motivation was one of life saving, not just doing the right thing," said Wilson, who now leads the nonprofit Resilient Design Institute. "So I thought it might be a way — particularly in our politically divided country — to get more people focused on green design and to do so for resilience reasons." City leaders increased the required base height of new buildings and initially "advocated for turning hard-hit areas into parks and greenspace," said John Lawson II, the press secretary of Mayor LaToya Cantrell. But that plan to bar redevelopment in certain areas prompted pushback from residents because those were mainly historically Black and low-income communities, he said. "Ultimately, there were no areas of the City where redevelopment was prohibited post-Katrina," Lawson wrote in an email. The Green Building Council also didn't follow its own advice. The group has struggled to prioritize resilience alongside the other environmental and health considerations woven into the LEED system. Since 2009, most new building scorecards have only offered up to four points — out of a possible 110 — for considering flooding in site selection, planning for natural disasters or designing for resilience after a disruptive event. And three of those resilience-themed points have only been offered as pilot credits, meaning most LEED experts aren't familiar with them. The Green Building Council also had a resilience working group for a time. But it went dormant around 2016 when the council began supporting a resilience rating system known as RELi that was initially created by Pierce, the Perkins&Will architect. The system was complicated and few projects adopted it. The Green Building Council effectively gave up on RELi in 2021, shifting management of that resilience standard to a smaller nonprofit. "What we spoke about — our working group many years ago — was integrating [resilience] throughout all the LEED systems, through all the different credit categories and making this something that was consistently addressed instead of this one-point, throw-away kind of thing," said Mary Ann Lazarus, who along with Wilson co-chaired the committee. Lazarus has drifted away from the Green Building Council but continues to value and support its work to advance sustainable design. "I just don't know why this particular issue, which is near and dear to my heart, has been so hard for them to bring into the standard in a really comprehensive way," she added. As it stands now, the LEED system effectively gives the same priority to setting aside at least a couple of parking spaces for charging electric vehicles as it does to not building on "sensitive" lands like in a floodplain or next to a water body: Each is worth a single point. The Vu New River earned points for both, even though it is located — as its name suggests — only steps from a yacht-filled estuary that snakes through Fort Lauderdale. That's because the LEED system still rewards projects in flood-prone areas if they are located on "land that has been previously developed," the ratings guide says. The Green Building Council awarded the sleek apartment building with a silver certification in 2015. The Broward Addiction Recovery Center — the other recently constructed LEED-certified building known to have flooded in the April storm — has a walled-in garden where patients can step out to get fresh air. During the downpour, that space filled up like a bathtub and then overflowed into the ground floor of the residential treatment facility. The county-run drug treatment facility earned a gold certification in 2018. (It scored zero points in a category that encourages steps to limit the quantity of stormwater.) The Lincoln Property Co., which owns the Vu, didn't respond to questions for this story. Broward County provided photos of the facility but declined a request to tour the building and then didn't respond to follow-up questions. If the Green Building Council had embedded resilience into its scorecards, those vulnerabilities could have been identified before now, Wilson argued. "A responsible resilience rating system or overlay to LEED would insist as a prerequisite on doing vulnerability or hazard assessments for any LEED building," he said. "I think places like that would have been flagged and to obtain that LEED certification they should've had to do measures to compensate for vulnerabilities that are identified. But that's not what LEED is set up to do today." As a result of that shortcoming, some relatively new LEED-certified buildings have already suffered costly repairs. The North Carolina History Center, for instance, received its silver certification in 2012. Five years later, the museum at the mouth of the Trent River had to temporarily close after it incurred extensive damage from Hurricane Florence's 13.5-foot storm surge. "The center was built to be above historic flood levels," said Nancy Figiel, a spokesperson with the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The wall of water that accompanied Florence, she noted, was three feet above the previous record high storm surge for the area. Other new LEED buildings that have been significantly impacted by flooding in the past decade include a library in Kentucky, the headquarters of Vermont's Department of Public Safety and the main offices of oil company ConocoPhillips, whose fuels have helped overheat the planet. Mark Bosma, a spokesperson for Vermont Emergency Management, said that although the state office complex wasn't damaged by floodwaters this July, it had to be "closed for about a week while the town of Waterbury restored water and sewer [service.]" Officials from Hazard County, Ky., didn't respond to a request for comment. ConocoPhillips declined to comment. Most of the flooded buildings identified by E&E News were not "built irresponsibly in remote areas — these are, in many cases, in the heart of our cities and communities," said the Green Building Council's Baker in a follow-up email. "There are hard conversations that need to happen about where and when we rebuild. While those discussions are occurring among community leaders, [the Green Building Council] encourages buildings to incorporate resilience into their planning, development and upgrades." It's virtually impossible to know the precise number of LEED buildings that have been damaged by floods, wildfires or other climate-related disasters because the Green Building Council doesn't collect that information. Property owners in most states also aren't required to disclose such details to buyers, renters or journalists. First Street's freely available property-level modeling aims to narrow the information gap. Its analysis of LEED properties suggests nearly 500 new buildings certified by the Green Building Council in the past decade are on sites that have experienced flooding this century. Those findings don't mean that hundreds of new LEED buildings have been or will be damaged as significantly as the North Carolina History Center, or at all. They do, however, indicate that many of them are in flood-prone areas where design teams should have taken steps to prepare for more rainfall or seawater – ones above and beyond those currently required by the Green Building Council or most local building regulators. "It is always that balance in a holistic rating system, and in a voluntary scorecard, of where we're putting the points," said Baker. Back in Fort Lauderdale, a municipal engineer at a May city commission meeting told local leaders they were spending about $40,000 per day to provide backup electricity and cooling for the shuttered city hall building, which is only a few blocks north of the Vu apartments. Day and night, diesel-powered generators the size of shipping containers buzzed outside the angular concrete edifice, preserving the damaged records and property stored inside. At the marathon meeting, commissioners had a contentious debate about interim office space options, putting off an even longer discussion about how and where to rebuild the heart of the city government. By county law, it will have to be LEED certified. "I don't think that's going to be a problem," Democratic Mayor Dean Trantalis told E&E News that night. "Because, you know, most buildings these days are very environmentally friendly." Erin Smith and Sean McMinn contributed reporting.

The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED rating system is the gold standard for environmental design. But more than 800 LEED-certified buildings are at risk from climate-related disasters.


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It was the kind of extreme weather event that happened all too often this year: On an unseasonably warm day, more than two feet of rain inundated the city, flooding hundreds of cars and buildings, including a recently constructed luxury apartment tower that touts its sustainability credentials to prospective tenants.

Shaped like a massive bow tie, the 18-story Vu New River is gray and white with navy blue accents. Water quickly flooded its palm tree-lined rooftop patio, streamed into upper-floor apartments and coursed down the building's elevator shaft, with some even splashing into the neon-lit lobby.

The deluge shocked tenants who thought the building was fully equipped to handle the changes wrought by global warming. But like a ship that is deemed unsinkable, the Vu New River is one of hundreds of recently constructed structures certified as sustainable that is nonetheless vulnerable to the very forces it seeks to combat.



The gleaming tower is one of more than 58,000 construction projects in the United States that have been specially certified as meeting the standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council, a three-decade-old nonprofit that works to make buildings and communities better for the environment and the people who live or work in them.

The main way the Green Building Council does that is via its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification system, which the group describes as "a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement." LEED certification is subsidized or required by more than 350 local and state governments as well as the U.S. General Services Administration, which manages the vast federal building stock.

But the influential rating system largely overlooks the growing impacts of climate change, despite increasingly frequent and severe climate-related disasters as well as years of warnings from former Green Building Council officials.

As a result, the Green Building Council has affixed its coveted three-leafed seal to more than 800 new buildings in the past decade that are at extreme risk of flooding, according to an analysis by POLITICO's E&E News and the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that models likely climate impacts.

That means those "green" buildings have up to a 50 percent chance every year of flood waters reaching at least their lowest point, according to a review First Street did at the request of E&E News. Of that group of structures, historic storm modeling indicates that more than 130 were constructed or overhauled on sites that likely flooded at least once in recent decades.


And anecdotal evidence from Fort Lauderdale suggests those figures could actually understate the magnitude of the problem for LEED buildings, some of the nation's most costly and desirable facilities: The Vu and the Broward County Addiction Recovery Center – another Green Building Council-blessed project in town that was damaged by the April 12 deluge – were not among the 830 LEED buildings that First Street found are most at risk.

First Street's peer-reviewed models are based on open-source government data as well as United Nations-vetted climate projections. Its modeling is relied upon by insurance companies and real estate firms as well as the departments of Treasury, Commerce and other federal agencies.

E&E News discussed the findings with nearly two dozen architects, city planners and policy experts. The analysis, several experts said, suggests that tens of millions of tax dollars have been directed toward new projects that may need to be repeatedly repaired or even abandoned before the end of their expected life span, raising questions about whether some green buildings are truly sustainable.


More importantly, the LEED process and the tax breaks involved could be a crucial tool for preparing man-made structures for climate-related disasters — one that is being squandered today.

"It's a contradiction to call something sustainable if it's also prone to hazards like flood," said Samuel Brody, the director of Texas A&M University's Institute for a Disaster Resilient Texas.

The Green Building Council needs "to better educate developers and tenants on the importance of not just being energy efficient but being resilient to these disturbances like floods," he said. "Because we don't want to put people in harm's way."


The Green Building Council, and the sustainable architecture movement it helped catalyze, emerged in the U.S. in the 1990s amid growing awareness that the burning of fossil fuels could intensify the types of catastrophic impacts the world is now experiencing — from the unprecedented wildfire on Maui to the deadly flooding in Libya.

Originally the group focused on the energy use of buildings, with a goal of maximizing efficiency and minimizing planet-warming carbon emissions. Over the years, the Green Building Council has expanded its focus to include measures intended to create buildings that are also more pleasant for the people in them, such as reducing the use of toxic chemicals and increasing air filtration and circulation.

Over time, these designations have become the gold standard for climate-friendly architecture: States and municipalities offer hundreds of programs to reward developers who agree to follow LEED standards, while renters and buyers look for the designation as a way to satisfy their own desire for a sustainable lifestyle. The rating system can also influence regulators, pushing some to strengthen local building codes.

As such, LEED standards have become a powerful tool in the nation's efforts to reduce climate pollution from the commercial and residential sector, which is tied for the largest source of emissions when factoring in electricity use.



But the Green Building Council has struggled to internalize the lessons from recurring climate-related disasters. From hurricanes Sandy to Maria, those incidents have shown that some new buildings can quickly go from healthy to hazardous if they lose power or water.

Efforts to plan for the potential impacts of major storms have instead been downplayed by the Green Building Council as a distraction for its core sustainability mission, according to some former members, including a past board member.

"Resilience hasn't really been a significant part of the LEED program since its inception," said Alex Wilson, who served on the group's board in 2000 when it publicly launched the ratings system.

"I pushed the council pretty hard to much more actively address resilience," he said. "I've been disappointed that that hasn't happened yet."

The Green Building Council, whose members include many building companies, acknowledged that the LEED system doesn't currently force those developers to consider the growing threats posed by climate change and suggested that modifications could be made when the rules are updated in the next few years.

"We have to look at flooding, we have to look at hazards. I am not disagreeing with you at all on that," said Melissa Baker, a senior vice president at the group.

"But we are balancing it with, where do we put time and points towards energy efficiency, towards carbon," she said of the scorecard-based system. "As adaptation becomes much more present, front of mind — it's obviously critical given what's been going on — we may see that balance shift. And that's something that we're working on now."

Wilson, who has been making the case for resilient design for more than a decade, isn't convinced that the Green Building Council is ready to give the critical issue the attention it deserves.

"I keep hoping I'll see signs of that and haven't yet," he said.


The lack of resiliency standards is especially frustrating, some designers say, because there are a range of things architects and developers can do to prepare for and quickly recover from flooding.

Relatively simple improvements include elevating a building's foundations, designing a "washout" floor that can be easily cleaned and dried after floodwaters recede, and placing vital equipment like electrical and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems on the second floor. Then there are more challenging measures like installing on-site renewable energy and storage systems or backup water treatment operations that can keep buildings up and running, even when the grid goes down.

But those cautionary steps either cost more upfront or involve some difficult tradeoffs. They are not likely to be taken if project designers and their clients aren't incentivized by local regulators or the LEED system to construct buildings that can withstand the threats posed by an ever hotter and more dangerous world.

"Building codes are boring as hell but they actually matter greatly, in terms of our safety and avoiding loss and damage," said Alice Hill, who during the Obama administration served as the National Security Council's resilience policy chief. "Until we get these codes right, we're going to see a lot more destruction."



The findings come as the Biden administration, the Green Building Council and other groups are working to make U.S. buildings more resilient.

The White House last year launched an initiative that aims to help state and local governments adopt the latest building codes. Forty states and U.S. territories haven't updated their building codes since 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported in April.

Meanwhile, the Green Building Council and the International Code Council, an influential nonprofit group that creates model building codes for local governments to use, say they are both working to integrate resiliency features into their offerings.

But LEED standards aren't likely to be updated until 2025, at the soonest. The code council didn't give a clear timeline for its next overhaul.

"If these voluntary organizations establish clear guidance and standards for resiliency, it could reduce loss to the United States. There's no question about it," said Hill, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a centrist think tank. "It's a missed opportunity because we don't have those standards and guidance in place. And so then we construct buildings that are destined to flood or burn."


The LEED rating system began as a pilot project in 1998, five years after the Green Building Council was formed by an environmental lawyer, a real estate developer and a marketing executive at the air conditioning company Carrier. They worked with a scientist at the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council to develop the ratings system.

The system is based on a scorecard of actions that architects, builders and developers can take to earn points toward certification and hopefully increase the environmental sustainability of their projects. The scorecards and points available vary slightly depending on whether the project is to, for instance, build a hospital, renovate an office or plan a new city.

But nearly all of the new construction scorecards promote actions like sourcing renewable energy from the grid and minimizing water use, as well as including bicycle facilities and creating "quality views" from throughout the building. Some actions, such as the storage and collection of recyclables, are required.

LEED certifications are awarded to projects at four point-based levels: At the top is the Green Building Council's platinum seal, followed by gold and silver. The entry level is simply certified.

It took until 2004 for the industry-led nonprofit group to sign off on its first 100 LEED projects. Last year, the cumulative total topped 100,000, with certified projects on every continent except Antarctica.

Over the decades, the Green Building Council has regularly updated LEED — sometimes to address publicized shortcomings in the program. For example, media outlets repeatedly found that some certified green projects consumed more energy than comparable buildings. Following those reports, the Green Building Council in 2015 required new LEED buildings to provide the group with information on their first few years of energy consumption.

The Green Building Council hasn't taken the same decisive steps to integrate climate adaptation into its sustainability rating system. That's despite a growing realization in the architecture field that building practices need to change in response to the ever-warming world.


The first wakeup call for designers was in 2005 when a Category 3 hurricane — with sustained winds estimated at 120 mph and a storm surge of at least 25 feet high — slammed into southeast Louisiana.

In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina trapped tens of thousands of people in flooded and powerless homes for weeks while also knocking offline nearly all of the city's health and safety facilities. Amid the sweltering August heat, more than 540 hurricane victims died from acute and chronic illnesses that likely "would have been prevented had emergency and hospital services been undisrupted following the storm," according to a 2014 study by the state of Louisiana.

"Katrina caught everybody's attention," said Douglas Pierce, the resilient design director at Perkins&Will, the world's second-largest architecture firm. The focus of the sustainable design field began "shifting beyond trying to stop climate change to actually having to say, 'climate change is here and we need to deal with it.'"


At the Green Building Council's annual conference that November, Wilson and some 160 other participants — including representatives from in and around New Orleans — put together a policy paper intended to help make the post-Katrina planning and rebuilding efforts more equitable and environmentally sustainable. The recommendations included "shifting development from regions of the city at the highest risk of future flooding" and designing or repairing buildings in other areas "to serve as livable refuges in the event of crisis or breakdown of energy, water, and sewer systems."

"The motivation was one of life saving, not just doing the right thing," said Wilson, who now leads the nonprofit Resilient Design Institute. "So I thought it might be a way — particularly in our politically divided country — to get more people focused on green design and to do so for resilience reasons."

City leaders increased the required base height of new buildings and initially "advocated for turning hard-hit areas into parks and greenspace," said John Lawson II, the press secretary of Mayor LaToya Cantrell. But that plan to bar redevelopment in certain areas prompted pushback from residents because those were mainly historically Black and low-income communities, he said.

"Ultimately, there were no areas of the City where redevelopment was prohibited post-Katrina," Lawson wrote in an email.

The Green Building Council also didn't follow its own advice. The group has struggled to prioritize resilience alongside the other environmental and health considerations woven into the LEED system.

Since 2009, most new building scorecards have only offered up to four points — out of a possible 110 — for considering flooding in site selection, planning for natural disasters or designing for resilience after a disruptive event. And three of those resilience-themed points have only been offered as pilot credits, meaning most LEED experts aren't familiar with them.

The Green Building Council also had a resilience working group for a time. But it went dormant around 2016 when the council began supporting a resilience rating system known as RELi that was initially created by Pierce, the Perkins&Will architect. The system was complicated and few projects adopted it. The Green Building Council effectively gave up on RELi in 2021, shifting management of that resilience standard to a smaller nonprofit.

"What we spoke about — our working group many years ago — was integrating [resilience] throughout all the LEED systems, through all the different credit categories and making this something that was consistently addressed instead of this one-point, throw-away kind of thing," said Mary Ann Lazarus, who along with Wilson co-chaired the committee.

Lazarus has drifted away from the Green Building Council but continues to value and support its work to advance sustainable design.

"I just don't know why this particular issue, which is near and dear to my heart, has been so hard for them to bring into the standard in a really comprehensive way," she added.


As it stands now, the LEED system effectively gives the same priority to setting aside at least a couple of parking spaces for charging electric vehicles as it does to not building on "sensitive" lands like in a floodplain or next to a water body: Each is worth a single point.

The Vu New River earned points for both, even though it is located — as its name suggests — only steps from a yacht-filled estuary that snakes through Fort Lauderdale. That's because the LEED system still rewards projects in flood-prone areas if they are located on "land that has been previously developed," the ratings guide says. The Green Building Council awarded the sleek apartment building with a silver certification in 2015.

The Broward Addiction Recovery Center — the other recently constructed LEED-certified building known to have flooded in the April storm — has a walled-in garden where patients can step out to get fresh air. During the downpour, that space filled up like a bathtub and then overflowed into the ground floor of the residential treatment facility. The county-run drug treatment facility earned a gold certification in 2018. (It scored zero points in a category that encourages steps to limit the quantity of stormwater.)

The Lincoln Property Co., which owns the Vu, didn't respond to questions for this story. Broward County provided photos of the facility but declined a request to tour the building and then didn't respond to follow-up questions.


If the Green Building Council had embedded resilience into its scorecards, those vulnerabilities could have been identified before now, Wilson argued.

"A responsible resilience rating system or overlay to LEED would insist as a prerequisite on doing vulnerability or hazard assessments for any LEED building," he said. "I think places like that would have been flagged and to obtain that LEED certification they should've had to do measures to compensate for vulnerabilities that are identified. But that's not what LEED is set up to do today."

As a result of that shortcoming, some relatively new LEED-certified buildings have already suffered costly repairs. The North Carolina History Center, for instance, received its silver certification in 2012. Five years later, the museum at the mouth of the Trent River had to temporarily close after it incurred extensive damage from Hurricane Florence's 13.5-foot storm surge.

"The center was built to be above historic flood levels," said Nancy Figiel, a spokesperson with the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The wall of water that accompanied Florence, she noted, was three feet above the previous record high storm surge for the area.

Other new LEED buildings that have been significantly impacted by flooding in the past decade include a library in Kentucky, the headquarters of Vermont's Department of Public Safety and the main offices of oil company ConocoPhillips, whose fuels have helped overheat the planet.

Mark Bosma, a spokesperson for Vermont Emergency Management, said that although the state office complex wasn't damaged by floodwaters this July, it had to be "closed for about a week while the town of Waterbury restored water and sewer [service.]"

Officials from Hazard County, Ky., didn't respond to a request for comment. ConocoPhillips declined to comment.

Most of the flooded buildings identified by E&E News were not "built irresponsibly in remote areas — these are, in many cases, in the heart of our cities and communities," said the Green Building Council's Baker in a follow-up email. "There are hard conversations that need to happen about where and when we rebuild. While those discussions are occurring among community leaders, [the Green Building Council] encourages buildings to incorporate resilience into their planning, development and upgrades."

It's virtually impossible to know the precise number of LEED buildings that have been damaged by floods, wildfires or other climate-related disasters because the Green Building Council doesn't collect that information. Property owners in most states also aren't required to disclose such details to buyers, renters or journalists.



First Street's freely available property-level modeling aims to narrow the information gap. Its analysis of LEED properties suggests nearly 500 new buildings certified by the Green Building Council in the past decade are on sites that have experienced flooding this century.

Those findings don't mean that hundreds of new LEED buildings have been or will be damaged as significantly as the North Carolina History Center, or at all. They do, however, indicate that many of them are in flood-prone areas where design teams should have taken steps to prepare for more rainfall or seawater – ones above and beyond those currently required by the Green Building Council or most local building regulators.

"It is always that balance in a holistic rating system, and in a voluntary scorecard, of where we're putting the points," said Baker.

Back in Fort Lauderdale, a municipal engineer at a May city commission meeting told local leaders they were spending about $40,000 per day to provide backup electricity and cooling for the shuttered city hall building, which is only a few blocks north of the Vu apartments. Day and night, diesel-powered generators the size of shipping containers buzzed outside the angular concrete edifice, preserving the damaged records and property stored inside.

At the marathon meeting, commissioners had a contentious debate about interim office space options, putting off an even longer discussion about how and where to rebuild the heart of the city government. By county law, it will have to be LEED certified.

"I don't think that's going to be a problem," Democratic Mayor Dean Trantalis told E&E News that night. "Because, you know, most buildings these days are very environmentally friendly."

Erin Smith and Sean McMinn contributed reporting.




Read the full story here.
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Climate Change and Wild Turkeys: New Study Overturns Conventional Wisdom

A recent research study has discovered that rainfall during the nesting season does not impact the breeding success of wild turkeys, challenging the commonly held...

Research from North Carolina State University reveals that precipitation levels during wild turkey nesting season don’t significantly impact reproductive success, challenging traditional beliefs and complicating predictions about the effects of climate change on these populations.A recent research study has discovered that rainfall during the nesting season does not impact the breeding success of wild turkeys, challenging the commonly held belief about the importance of precipitation for wild turkey nesting success. This revelation provides fresh insights into the potential effects of climate change on wild turkey populations.“We wanted to know how weather influences nesting success right now, and then use that data to assess how climate change may influence wild turkey populations in the future,” says Wesley Boone, corresponding author of a paper on the work and a postdoctoral researcher at North Carolina State University.“Wild turkeys are fairly tolerant of a wide range of conditions, but there are a host of factors that can affect their reproductive success,” says Chris Moorman, co-author of the study and a professor of forestry and environmental resources at NC State. “This work focused on two of those conditions, precipitation and temperature, and how they may influence nest survival during the incubation period.” For the study, researchers focused on daily nest survival, which is whether the eggs in the nest survive any given 24-hour period. Over the course of eight years, researchers monitored 715 turkey nests and collected daily precipitation and temperature data for each nest during the entire incubation period. For temperature, the researchers looked specifically at the extent to which temperatures at each nest varied from historical averages.The researchers analyzed all of this data to determine the extent to which precipitation and temperature were associated with daily nest survival.Findings on Precipitation and Temperature“The most surprising finding was that precipitation during nesting was not a good predictor of daily nest survival,” Moorman says. “It had been widely believed that particularly rainy weather made it more likely that eggs wouldn’t survive.”“We also found that temperatures which were higher than historical averages were associated with higher rates of daily nest survival during incubation,” says Boone. “Peak nesting season is generally in April, so we’re talking about warmer than average spring weather.”“Taken by itself, this might suggest that climate change could benefit turkey reproductive success and, by extension, turkey populations,” Moorman says. “However, we also looked at precipitation and temperature data for the months leading up to nesting season, and at the overall likelihood that a turkey nest will successfully hatch at least one egg. And when we looked at both of those datasets, things get a lot less clear.”“For example, the data suggest that more precipitation in January – long before nesting season – is associated with greater nest survival,” Boone says. “The data also suggest that higher temperatures in January are associated with worse nesting survival. But there is so much uncertainty related to those findings that it’s not clear whether there’s a real relationship there, or if it’s an anomaly. However, it does temper any enthusiasm we might have about the likelihood that climate change will benefit turkey populations.”Reference: “Robust assessment of associations between weather and eastern wild turkey nest success” by Wesley W. Boone, Christopher E. Moorman, David J. Moscicki, Bret A. Collier, Michael J. Chamberlain, Adam J. Terando and Krishna Pacifici, 15 November 2023, The Journal of Wildlife Management.DOI: 10.1002/jwmg.22524The paper was co-authored by David Moscicki, a Ph.D. student at NC State; Krishna Pacifici, an associate professor of forestry and environmental resources; Adam Terando, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey; Bret Collier, a professor of wildlife ecology at Louisiana State University; and Michael Chamberlain, the Terrell Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Georgia.The research was done with support from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, which is headquartered at NC State; and from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, under McIntire Stennis Project Number 7001494. Additional support was provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources-Wildlife Resources Division, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia and the School of Renewable Natural Resources at Louisiana State University.

Coastal women in Bangladesh face health issues due to climate change

Women living in Bangladesh's coastal regions are severely affected by climate change-induced salinity, leading to various health complications. Famiha Suhrawardy reports for Dhaka Tribune.In short:The increased salinity in coastal areas has led to reproductive health issues among women, including miscarriages and difficulties in pregnancy.Local women suffer from waterborne diseases, hypertension, and respiratory infections due to a lack of safe drinking water.Initiatives by Brac, such as the installation of water tanks, have provided some relief, but challenges remain, particularly during dry seasons.Key quote: "It is a very troubling situation for the women living here. Due to the saline water, women face difficulty in getting pregnant and have miscarriages frequently." — Sumi Akter, Mongla resident.Why this matters: This issue highlights the direct human impact of climate change on health, particularly for vulnerable populations like women in coastal areas. It underscores the need for effective environmental and health policies to mitigate the consequences of climate change.LISTEN: Azmal Hossan on the sociology of climate crises in South Asia.

Women living in Bangladesh's coastal regions are severely affected by climate change-induced salinity, leading to various health complications. Famiha Suhrawardy reports for Dhaka Tribune.In short:The increased salinity in coastal areas has led to reproductive health issues among women, including miscarriages and difficulties in pregnancy.Local women suffer from waterborne diseases, hypertension, and respiratory infections due to a lack of safe drinking water.Initiatives by Brac, such as the installation of water tanks, have provided some relief, but challenges remain, particularly during dry seasons.Key quote: "It is a very troubling situation for the women living here. Due to the saline water, women face difficulty in getting pregnant and have miscarriages frequently." — Sumi Akter, Mongla resident.Why this matters: This issue highlights the direct human impact of climate change on health, particularly for vulnerable populations like women in coastal areas. It underscores the need for effective environmental and health policies to mitigate the consequences of climate change.LISTEN: Azmal Hossan on the sociology of climate crises in South Asia.

Arctic wildlife faces dire challenges amid record heat and ecosystem changes

The Arctic's rapid warming is causing significant shifts in ecosystems, posing severe threats to the region's wildlife.Sharon Guynup reports for Mongabay.In short:Arctic species are struggling to adapt to the dramatic changes in their habitats due to climate change.The loss of sea ice is affecting a wide range of species, from walruses to migratory birds.The rapid pace of these environmental changes is outstripping the ability of many species to adapt.Key quote:“Species can adapt over time, but they don’t have time, and ecosystems are really complicated. I’m not clear which species will prevail and where.”— Joel Clement, Arctic climate and policy expertWhy this matters:This situation in the Arctic is a reminder of the broader impacts of climate change on global biodiversity. It highlights the urgent need for effective climate action to mitigate these changes and protect vulnerable species.Read: Shorebird egg theft is becoming a big problem in the Arctic. And climate change is behind it.

The Arctic's rapid warming is causing significant shifts in ecosystems, posing severe threats to the region's wildlife.Sharon Guynup reports for Mongabay.In short:Arctic species are struggling to adapt to the dramatic changes in their habitats due to climate change.The loss of sea ice is affecting a wide range of species, from walruses to migratory birds.The rapid pace of these environmental changes is outstripping the ability of many species to adapt.Key quote:“Species can adapt over time, but they don’t have time, and ecosystems are really complicated. I’m not clear which species will prevail and where.”— Joel Clement, Arctic climate and policy expertWhy this matters:This situation in the Arctic is a reminder of the broader impacts of climate change on global biodiversity. It highlights the urgent need for effective climate action to mitigate these changes and protect vulnerable species.Read: Shorebird egg theft is becoming a big problem in the Arctic. And climate change is behind it.

Climate change triggers severe crawfish shortage in southern US

A combination of drought and extreme weather has led to a dramatic decrease in crawfish availability, impacting the economy and culture in the southern United States.Xander Peters reports for National Geographic.In short:Last year's drought and cold weather spells in Louisiana have caused a significant reduction in crawfish populations.The shortage has led to a 500% increase in crawfish prices, affecting local economies and cultural practices.The situation exemplifies the broader impact of climate change on regional food systems and livelihoods.Key quote:“It'll take four or five years before we get back where we're supposed to be.”— Zachary Hebert, crawfish farmerWhy this matters:The crawfish shortage in the southern U.S. highlights the vulnerability of local food systems to climate change. It underscores the need for sustainable practices and resilience in the face of environmental challenges.Be sure to read: Dead fish carry toxic mercury to the deep ocean, contaminating crustaceans.

A combination of drought and extreme weather has led to a dramatic decrease in crawfish availability, impacting the economy and culture in the southern United States.Xander Peters reports for National Geographic.In short:Last year's drought and cold weather spells in Louisiana have caused a significant reduction in crawfish populations.The shortage has led to a 500% increase in crawfish prices, affecting local economies and cultural practices.The situation exemplifies the broader impact of climate change on regional food systems and livelihoods.Key quote:“It'll take four or five years before we get back where we're supposed to be.”— Zachary Hebert, crawfish farmerWhy this matters:The crawfish shortage in the southern U.S. highlights the vulnerability of local food systems to climate change. It underscores the need for sustainable practices and resilience in the face of environmental challenges.Be sure to read: Dead fish carry toxic mercury to the deep ocean, contaminating crustaceans.

Another Big Question About AI: Its Carbon Footprint

This story was originally published by Yale E360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Two months after its release in November 2022, OpenAI’s ChatGPT had 100 million active users, and suddenly tech corporations were racing to offer the public more “generative AI” Pundits compared the new technology’s impact to the Internet, or electrification, or the […]

This story was originally published by Yale E360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Two months after its release in November 2022, OpenAI’s ChatGPT had 100 million active users, and suddenly tech corporations were racing to offer the public more “generative AI” Pundits compared the new technology’s impact to the Internet, or electrification, or the Industrial Revolution—or the discovery of fire. Time will sort hype from reality, but one consequence of the explosion of artificial intelligence is clear: this technology’s environmental footprint is large and growing. AI use is directly responsible for carbon emissions from non-renewable electricity and for the consumption of millions of gallons of fresh water, and it indirectly boosts impacts from building and maintaining the power-hungry equipment on which AI runs. As tech companies seek to embed high-intensity AI into everything from resume-writing to kidney transplant medicine and from choosing dog food to climate modeling, they cite many ways AI could help reduce humanity’s environmental footprint. But legislators, regulators, activists, and international organizations now want to make sure the benefits aren’t outweighed by AI’s mounting hazards. “The development of the next generation of AI tools cannot come at the expense of the health of our planet,” Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey (D) said last week in Washington, after he and other senators and representatives introduced a bill that would require the federal government to assess AI’s current environmental footprint and develop a standardized system for reporting future impacts. Similarly, the European Union’s “AI Act,” approved by member states last week, will require “high-risk AI systems” (which include the powerful “foundation models” that power ChatGPT and similar AIs) to report their energy consumption, resource use, and other impacts throughout their systems’ lifecycle. The EU law takes effect next year. “The models that are able to write a poem for you, or draft an email, those are very large,” says one expert—”too big for most personal devices.” Meanwhile, the International Organization for Standardization, a global network that develops standards for manufacturers, regulators, and others, says it will issue criteria for “sustainable AI” later this year. Those will include standards for measuring energy efficiency, raw material use, transportation, and water consumption, as well as practices for reducing AI impacts throughout its life cycle, from the process of mining materials and making computer components to the electricity consumed by its calculations. The ISO wants to enable AI users to make informed decisions about their AI consumption. Right now, it’s not possible to tell how your AI request for homework help or a picture of an astronaut riding a horse will affect carbon emissions or freshwater stocks. This is why 2024’s crop of “sustainable AI” proposals describe ways to get more information about AI impacts. In the absence of standards and regulations, tech companies have been reporting whatever they choose, however they choose, about their AI impact, says Shaolei Ren, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Riverside, who has been studying the water costs of computation for the past decade. Working from calculations of annual use of water for cooling systems by Microsoft, Ren estimates that a person who engages in a session of questions and answers with GPT-3 (roughly 10 t0 50 responses) drives the consumption of a half-liter of fresh water. “It will vary by region, and with a bigger AI, it could be more.” But a great deal remains unrevealed about the millions of gallons of water used to cool computers running AI, he says. The same is true of carbon. “Data scientists today do not have easy or reliable access to measurements of [greenhouse gas impacts from AI], which precludes development of actionable tactics,” a group of 10 prominent researchers on AI impacts wrote in a 2022 conference paper. Since they presented their article, AI applications and users have proliferated, but the public is still in the dark about those data, says Jesse Dodge, a research scientist at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, who was one of the paper’s coauthors. AI can run on many devices—the simple AI that autocorrects text messages will run on a smartphone. But the kind of AI people most want to use is too big for most personal devices, Dodge says. “The models that are able to write a poem for you, or draft an email, those are very large,” he says. “Size is vital for them to have those capabilities.” The IEA projects that global data centers’ electricity consumption in 2026 will be double that of 2022. Big AIs need to run immense numbers of calculations very quickly, usually on specialized Graphical Processing Units—processors originally designed for intense computation to render graphics on computer screens. Compared to other chips, GPUs are more energy-efficient for AI, and they’re most efficient when they’re run in large “cloud data centers”—specialized buildings full of computers equipped with those chips. The larger the data center, the more energy efficient it can be. Improvements in AI’s energy efficiency in recent years are partly due to the construction of more “hyperscale data centers,” which contain many more computers and can quickly scale up. Where a typical cloud data center occupies about 100,000 square feet, a hyperscale center can be 1 or even 2 million square feet. Estimates of the number of cloud data centers worldwide range from around 9,000 to nearly 11,000. More are under construction. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that data centers’ electricity consumption in 2026 will be double that of 2022—1,000 terawatts, roughly equivalent to Japan’s current total consumption. However, as an illustration of one problem with the way AI impacts are measured, that IEA estimate includes all data center activity, which extends beyond AI to many aspects of modern life. Running Amazon’s store interface, serving up Apple TV’s videos, storing millions of people’s emails on Gmail, and “mining” Bitcoin are also performed by data centers. (Other IEA reports exclude crypto operations, but still lump all other data-center activity together.) Most tech firms that run data centers don’t reveal what percentage of their energy use processes AI The exception is Google, which says “machine learning”—the basis for humanlike AI—accounts for somewhat less than 15 percent of its data centers’ energy use. In 2022, Google’s data centers consumed about 5 billion gallons (nearly 20 billion liters) of fresh water for cooling. Another complication is the fact that AI, unlike Bitcoin mining or online shopping, can be used to reduce humanity’s impacts. AI can improve climate models, find more efficient ways to make digital tech, reduce waste in transport, and otherwise cut carbon and water use. One estimate, for example, found that AI -run smart homes could reduce households’ CO₂ consumption by up to 40 percent. And a recent Google project found that an AI fast-crunching atmospheric data can guide airline pilots to flight paths that will leave the fewest contrails. Because contrails create more than a third of global aviation’s carbon emissions, “if the whole aviation industry took advantage of this single AI breakthrough,” says Dave Patterson, a computer-science professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and a Google researcher, “this single discovery would save more CO₂ than the CO₂ from all AI in 2020.” Patterson’s analysis predicts that AI’s carbon footprint will soon plateau and then begin to shrink, thanks to improvements in the efficiency with which AI software and hardware use energy. One reflection of that efficiency improvement: as AI usage has increased since 2019, its percentage of Google data-center energy use has held at less than 15 percent. And while global internet traffic has increased more than twentyfold since 2010, the share of the world’s electricity used by data centers and networks increased far less, according to the IEA. However, data about improving efficiency doesn’t convince some skeptics, who cite a social phenomenon called “Jevons paradox”: Making a resource less costly sometimes increases its consumption in the long run. “It’s a rebound effect,” Ren says. “You make the freeway wider, people use less fuel because traffic moves faster, but then you get more cars coming in. You get more fuel consumption than before.” If home heating is 40 percent more efficient due to AI, one critic recently wrote, people could end up keeping their homes warmer for more hours of the day. “AI is an accelerant for everything,” Dodge says. “It makes whatever you’re developing go faster.” At the Allen Institute, AI has helped develop better programs to model the climate, track endangered species, and curb overfishing, he says. But globally AI could also support “a lot of applications that could accelerate climate change. This is where you get into ethical questions about what kind of AI you want.” If global electricity use can feel a bit abstract, data centers’ water use is a more local and tangible issue—particularly in drought-afflicted areas. To cool delicate electronics in the clean interiors of the data centers, water has to be free of bacteria and impurities that could gunk up the works. In other words, data centers often compete “for the same water people drink, cook, and wash with,” says Ren. In 2022, Ren says, Google’s data centers consumed about 5 billion gallons (nearly 20 billion liters) of fresh water for cooling. (“Consumptive use” does not include water that’s run through a building and then returned to its source.) According to a recent study by Ren, Google’s data centers used 20 percent more water in 2022 than they did in 2021, and Microsoft’s water use rose by 34 percent in the same period. (Google data centers host its Bard chatbot and other generative AIs; Microsoft servers host ChatGPT as well as its bigger siblings GPT-3 and GPT-4. All three are produced by OpenAI, in which Microsoft is a large investor.) As more data centers are built or expanded, their neighbors have been troubled to find out how much water they take. For example, in The Dalles, Oregon, where Google runs three data centers and plans two more, the city government filed a lawsuit in 2022 to keep Google’s water use a secret from farmers, environmentalists, and Native American tribes who were concerned about its effects on agriculture and on the region’s animals and plants. The city withdrew its suit early last year. The records it then made public showed that Google’s three extant data centers use more than a quarter of the city’s water supply. And in Chile and Uruguay, protests have erupted over planned Google data centers that would tap into the same reservoirs that supply drinking water. Most of all, researchers say, what’s needed is a change of culture within the rarefied world of AI development. Generative AI’s creators need to focus beyond the technical leaps and bounds of their newest creations and be less guarded about the details of the data, software, and hardware they use to create it. Some day in the future, Dodge says, an AI might be able—or be legally obligated—to inform a user about the water and carbon impact of each distinct request she makes. “That would be a fantastic tool that would help the environment,” he says. For now, though, individual users don’t have much information or power to know their AI footprint, much less make decisions about it. “There’s not much individuals can do, unfortunately,” Ren says. Right now, you can “try to use the service judiciously,” he says.

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