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Climate change is a legal reality for design professionals

Design professionals are key leaders in the global response to the threats that climate change poses. Nearly every potential solution involves the work of architects and engineers.

Whether sequestering greenhouse gases, mitigating the damage done by climate change, or producing, storing, using or saving energy, design will be important to the way forward.

On the other hand, the community has already seen lawsuits alleging the failure of design professionals to respond responsibly to the challenges of climate change.

Future-focused professions grapple with an uncertain future

As an article in The Architect’s Newspaper discussed this year, as clients, communities and the law increasingly accept the reality of climate change, designers of all kinds are needing to think about the legal liabilities of a warming planet.

Failing to comply with local building codes and other regulations can mean legal trouble, but regulations almost always reflect what governments have seen in the past. Clients tend to expect design professions to be more future-focused.

Standard of care in a changing world

In medical malpractice lawsuits, the legal questions often focus on the “standard of care.” A successful suit must show the doctor’s diagnoses or cures were outside the range you should expect from similar professionals dealing with comparable problems and information. Similar principles may apply to malpractice in the design professions.

When the climate, public awareness and regulations are so quickly affecting client needs, the fast-changing standards of the profession as whole may affect judgments in the courtroom.

The litigation has begun

Nearly everyone has seen scientists’ increasingly confident maps of future shorelines. Anyone with a smartphone or television has a mental picture of their predictive animations.

ExxonMobil already faces a lawsuit, filed in federal court by a Boston-based environmental group, based on comparable predictions.

The suit alleges the petrochemical company’s own scientists predict rising sea levels due to climate change. However, ExxonMobil has not “properly engineered, managed, and fortified” its 110-acre terminal located on low ground beside the Mystic River, putting area residents at risk according to the suit.

This year, a federal judge gave the go-ahead for the suit to continue.