In this week’s blog, Phius Co-Founder and Executive Director Katrin Klingenberg reflects on her current visit to Europe and shares firsthand observations of the effects of climate change she has experienced there.

I am spending the summer in Germany taking care of business on the “home” front in the morning hours (yes, REVIVE Pilot retrofitting and electrification project for those of you who have been following my LinkedIn newsletters), and I have been working a second shift from noon until about 8 p.m. on all things passive in the USA and elsewhere. I’m on plenty of global zoom meetings these days (which is kind of fun).

Stateside, the Phius team is making leaps and bounds. Phius is now an alternative compliance path in Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot's Energy Transformation Code. We hope it will inspire other cities to enact similar plans, and we have begun reaching out around the Midwest. 

Massachusetts is about to publish its new Zero Energy Stretch Code and – drumroll please – Phius has been recognized (as we have posited for a while now) as the best path to zero. It is no longer just an “alternative” compliance path but has been written into code for new multifamily buildings, and is one of three compliance pathways for commercial construction. Phius Policy Specialist Isaac Elnecave already set the stage for policy news in last week’s blog and will report on even more details next week. Excellent progress!

A Changing Europe

Being here in Germany has sparked some challenging thoughts for me. Europe is attempting to cope with a drastically changing climate not only toward the hotter but also toward extremely dry conditions. In addition, it is reeling from the war in Ukraine because of its dependency on Russian gas and the resulting shortage. Heat and fires, devastating droughts and economic fallout in southern Europe are unprecedented, and in the North record high temperatures are being recorded and little rain has fallen. And remember, still very few people over here have air conditioning!

Growing up here, I never experienced a 102-degree day once – not even close. Thunderstorms and frequent rain were the norm, but now every day is warm and we have 0% humidity all day long and maybe 2% at night – this is crazy. 

If we’re lucky, a few teasing raindrops fall, but not enough to make the soil look even remotely wet. Many towns around us have water curtailment orders in place. Even well water cannot be used any longer. For the first time, fields caught fire here, threatening homes. My hometown now feels more like California than, well, Northern Germany. 

And maybe it is BECAUSE I have not stayed here for a prolonged period of time for a long while that those changes are not gradual for me. They appear more drastic and extreme than for those who have been here for the previous drought and heatwave – which was not nearly as bad – four years ago. Headlines in the news read: “We Have to Prepare the Population for Disasters to Come.” They are considering asking everyone to turn the thermostats down in the winter, and I feel like I am living in a disaster Hollywood thriller.

The planet is reeling from increasingly extreme weather (I hear now back stateside, Yosemite is in flames). Authors such as Jeremy Rifkin and Jorgen Randers, who have been climate activists since the 1970s, have warned humanity of the limits to growth and the consequences if we do not change. They are now warning us that the window of opportunity for meaningful mitigation has come to a close, and it is time to shift more serious attention to adaptation. 

The large-scale solutions that worked in times of relative stability are becoming less and less attainable. Conditions continue to become less and less stable politically, economically, socially, and environmentally – there are shifting sands all over. It makes large-scale, precise, long-term change with a final deadline almost impossible to plan for and execute.

Now, that does not mean we should stop trying. It just means that the need for a skill that is not often taught – the factoring in of complex adaptive systems into the equation and whole systems thinking – becomes a matter of survival. We at Phius have made significant progress to change the system on a large scale for new construction in a relatively short time frame (10 years). We were lucky the systems were and still are relatively stable, but again, in light of the problem and the aforementioned shifting sands, that progress will be helpful, but will not be enough. And progress will be increasingly more difficult to come by.

The entire building retrofit debate is banking on large-scale industrialized solutions, a stable political and economic system, and a belief in how technology worked with supply chains intact to come and save us. And again, we shall not stop our efforts – they are crucial. But we need to start factoring in the shifting sands. And personally, I believe it might succeed at some point, but the scale is so large and the conditions so variable that it will likely not work soon enough.

We need a new strategy.

On German TV, people are saying out loud on talk shows that we might have to cope with getting poorer (turn thermostats down, use less etc.). In short, people are preparing for adaptation. The writing is on the wall. And I am not talking about some minor adaptation.

Maybe I am just thinking out loud, looking for confirmation that I am thinking about this correctly. Phius is mapping out its next strategies, and it is really difficult to predict what will happen. I am trying to find the most stable path as we move forward, applying my best complex adaptive systems thinking skills as always (thank you Carole Tiernan, one of my fearless thesis leaders). I believe it will be critical to be nimble and flexible to allow for quick adjustments, but I don’t know what that exactly entails. It feels like we need an entirely new framework for how to think about the problem.

Hope for the Future

To close, I’d like to offer a hopeful, maybe thought inspiring quote recently sent to me by Richard Levine, one of our longstanding and valued Phius board members: 

"Yet, taking a broader view such a ruling [recent EPA Climate ruling] is totally unnecessary as the utilities have already greatly exceeded the rates of reductions mandated by the now disallowed requirements of the EPA, because of current market forces, including the rising costs of carbon fuels relative to the falling costs of renewables plus the rising "swarming" demands of various socio-political actors, that are increasingly seen as harbingers of future market pressures and demands. I believe we are nearing that tipping point where these swarming forces will converge to make the trajectory toward sustainability inevitable. I hope this is true and that we will be ready for it."

“Swarming forces”

I am determined to be ready… Are you?