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Green-Building Pioneer Says Kansas City's New Airport Could Be 'First Carbon-Free Terminal'

U.S. Green Building Council
Bob Berkebile is recognized as one of the country's most influential environmentalists and preservationists.

Why aren't people more panicked about climate change? Bob Berkebile thinks it has something to do with the complicated nature of the threat.

"We're talking about climate change, and specifically global warming, when it's frozen outside today," Berkebile says, citing the infamous and incorrect claim that winter weather is evidence against climate change. "It's not clear to (people) what the facts are, and it's time to change that."

An architect based at the Kansas City firm BNIM, Berkebile has pioneered environmentally conscious building design. He was instrumental forming the U.S. Green Building Council and its LEED system, the most widely used green-building rating system in the world.

He says Kansas City's new airport terminal could help set a national and global example for sustainability.

"We are among the top 10 cities in America for reducing our carbon footprint. That is extraordinary, and the city should be complimented for that," he says. "At the same time, we are No. 5 in terms of risk nationally ... because we're the bread basket of America."

The headline-grabbing project at KCI, which could break ground within weeks, is an opportunity for the whole region, he says.

"We're spending, as we know, more than a billion dollars creating a new terminal," he notes. "With a little bit of design and coordination and leadership, we could make that terminal the first carbon-free terminal on the planet."

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR
Demolition of Terminal A at KCI could begin as soon as April.

It would involve native plant landscaping, carbon sequestration and designing the most efficient of buildings — one that requires so little energy you could power it from a renewable source located on the airport property.

It would cost more upfront, Berkebile acknowledges, but it would cost less to operate, would be more resilient, and would have a smaller impact on the environment.

And, he says, it would send a strong message about how Kansas City and the region think about the environment. It could also spread interest in how property owners can reduce the emmissions of their own buildings.

"I'd like for the city and others to create pilot (programs) to show — at the house scale, at the scale of an airport — how do you do this?" he says. "And prove what is factual: that it costs less to do the right thing."

It's not too late to act, Berkebile says, but he takes his cues from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"We have maybe 10 years — not to make things the way they always have been," he says, "but to make the change limited to something we can deal with."

Bob Berkebile spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date. Listen to the entire conversation here.

Luke X. Martin is associate producer of KCUR's Up To Date. Contact him at luke@kcur.org or on Twitter, @lukexmartin.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.