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Insulation and Climate Change

By Richard N. Wright

Climate change provides opportunities and challenges for the insulation industry. High-performance insulation systems are vital for energy efficiency and reductions in the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that contribute to climate change. The consequences of climate change, such as heat waves, heavy precipitation, high winds, flooding, and wildfires threaten the integrity and durability of insulation systems. This article calls attention to the authoritative information on climate change and suggests how the insulation industry can contribute to the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change effects.

Climate, Weather, and Extreme Events

Weather, climate, and extreme events are key considerations in insulation systems' design and practice. Weather is defined as "the state of the atmosphere with respect to wind, temperature, cloudiness, moisture, pressure, etc." (NWS, 2013). Weather generally refers to short-term variations on the order of minutes to about 15 days (NSIDC, 2012). Climate, on the other hand, "is usually defined as the average weather, or more rigorously, as the statistical description in terms of the mean and variability of relevant quantities over a period of time ranging from months to thousands or millions of years" (IPCC, 2007). An extreme event is a weather event that is rare at a particular place and time of year (IPCC, 2007). For instance, for Washington Reagan National Airport on June 25 (Washington Post; June 26, 2013): the normal high temperature is 87°F (climate), the high on June 25, 2013 was 93°F (weather), and the record high was 100°F in 1997 (extreme event).

Scientists have reached a consensus that weather, climate, and extreme events of the past generally will not be representative of those of the future. Moreover, climate science is not able to precisely forecast the climate, weather, and extreme events of future decades. This uncertainty poses a challenge to standards that are based on the assumption that the climate, weather, and extreme events observed in the past will characterize those of the future.

A number of authoritative sources (available free online) summarize the science on weather, climate, and extreme events, and the links between science and decision making.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) involves 13 federal agencies and is headed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. USGCRP is preparing a National Climate Assessment (NCA), which will be issued in 2014; a draft has been available since January 2013 (NCA, 2013). The draft of the NCA was prepared by the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee with over 240 contributors and authors including climate and social scientists as well as engineers. It has chapters on urban systems, infrastructure and vulnerability, U.S. regions, mitigation, and adaptation.

Figure 2, U.S. Average Temperature Projections, taken from the draft NCA, illustrates both the potential significance of climate change for insulation systems and why climate science cannot now quantitatively forecast future climate, weather, and extreme events.

The solid line for the 20th century shows an increasing trend, amounting to about 2°F for the century, with the observed variations from the trend as large as 2°F. The projections for the 21st century are derived from global climate models that consider a variety of scenarios for economic development and control of GHG emissions (Moss et al., 2010). The lowest curve is based on GHG concentrations peaking at 490 ppm carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent and then declining; it leads to an additional 2°F increase in U.S. average temperature in the 21st century. The highest curve is based on emissions continuing to produce GHG concentration of 1,370 CO2 equivalent in 2100; it leads to an additional 9°F increase. The historical trend of atmospheric CO2 is shown in Figure 3. The CO2 data (red curve), measured as the mole fraction in dry air from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, constitute the longest record of direct measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere. The black curve represents the seasonally corrected data.

Greenhouse gas emissions in the 21st century will depend upon worldwide actions, private and public behavior, and policy decisions and actions, which are unpredictable, but can be represented by scenarios such as those used in preparing Figure 2.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change. It was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988 to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts. The Physical Science Basis (IPCC, 2007) describes observational and modeling bases for projections of climate change effects; an updated version is due for publication in the fall of 2013. Figure 4, excerpted from Table 3-1 of "Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation" (IPCC, 2012) provides guidance to future weather and extreme events that will affect insulation systems.

The U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine have also studied climate change science, mitigation, and adaptation (National Academies, 2011).

What Can the Insulation Industry Do?

Insulation systems have always been strong contributors to energy efficiency. The combustion of fossil fuels is responsible for over 80% of U.S. GHG emissions (National Academies, 2011). If you consider U.S. energy use by sector, buildings use 41%, industry uses 31%, and transportation uses 28%—thus, there are significant opportunities for high-performance insulation systems to reduce energy use.

Engineers and scientists from the insulation industry can join in research with climate and weather scientists to develop integrated models for climate, weather, and extreme events (National Academies, 2012), which, combined with observations, can give probabilistic guidance for the conditions for which insulation systems should be designed, constructed, operated, and maintained.

Before such research is conducted and its results incorporated in standards (a process that may take a decade or more), what can the industry do?

There is useful guidance in the concept "long life, loose fit, low energy" expressed by Alex Gordon, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Gordon, 1972):

  • Long life contributes to sustainability and reduction of GHG emissions through conservation of materials and energy required for removal and replacement. Long life can be promoted by siting and design to avoid susceptibility to flooding and wildfires, and the use of systems and details inherently resistant to extremes of temperature, wind, and precipitation. However, shorter service lives, where economical, will provide opportunities to account for better knowledge of climate/weather/extremes in design of future replacements.

  • Loose fit means making insulation systems adaptable to conditions that could not be foreseen during the original design—a quality already widely exemplified by older buildings in useful service today.

  • Low energy, including the embodied energy in original construction and the operating energy over the service life, provides both economic benefits and reductions in the GHG emissions driving climate change.

Members of the industry can and should share their insights in adapting to climate change with case studies published in Insulation Outlook and other media. They will guide the evolution of standards and practices. Industry research, in collaboration with climate and social scientists, can improve both observations of climate/weather/extremes and modeling to provide a probabilistic understanding of the changing nature of hazards, risks, and benefits as bases for appropriately evolving insulation standards.



Energy consumption patterns have changed significantly over the history of the United States as new energy sources have been developed and as uses of energy changed.

A typical American family from the time our country was founded used wood (a renewable energy source) as its primary energy source until the mid- to late-1800s. Early industrial growth was powered by water mills. Coal became dominant in the late 19th century before being overtaken by petroleum products in the middle of the last century, a time when natural gas usage also rose quickly.

Since the mid-20th century, use of coal has again increased (mainly as a primary energy source for electric power generation), and a new form of energy—nuclear electric power—emerged. After a pause in the 1970s, the use of petroleum and natural gas resumed growth, and the overall pattern of energy use since the late 20th century has remained fairly stable.

While the overall energy history of the United States is one of significant change as new forms of energy were developed, the 3 major fossil fuels—petroleum, natural gas, and coal, which together provided 87% of total U.S. primary energy over the past decade—have dominated the U.S. fuel mix for well over 100 years. Recent increases in the domestic production of petroleum liquids and natural gas have prompted shifts between the uses of fossil fuels (largely from coal-fired to natural gas-fired power generation), but the predominance of these 3 energy sources is likely to continue into the future.



IPCC (2007), "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis," Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, available at

IPCC (2012), "Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation," A Report of Working Groups I and II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, available at

Gordon (1972), "Designing for survival: the President introduces his long life/loose fit/low energy study," Royal Institute of British Architects Journal, vol. 79, no. 9, pp. 374-376.

Moss, et al. (2010), "The next generation of scenarios for climate change research and assessment," Nature, 463, pp. 747-756, [Available online at:]

National Academies (2009), America's Energy Future, National Academies Press, available at

National Academies (2011), America's Climate Choices, National Academies Press, available at

National Academies (2012), A National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling, National Academies Press, available at

NCA (2013), "Federal Advisory Committee Draft Climate Assessment" available at

NSIDC (2012), Arctic Climatology and Meteorology Glossary (; accessed October 9, 2012).

NWS (2013), National Weather Service Glossary (; accessed on March 14, 2013

This article appeared in the August 2013 issue of Insulation Outlook.

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Richard N. Wright

Richard N. Wright is chair of the Sustainability Topical Committee of the Consultative Council of the National Institute of Building Sciences, vice chair of the Committee on Adaptation to a Changing Climate of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and member of the Committee on Sustainability of ASCE. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and Distinguished Member of ASCE. He has retired as director of the Building and Fire Research Laboratory of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and as Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His email address is

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