Back to top

Engineers leading the way on climate change

February 2, 2014

Our 2011 report, Professionals and Climate Change, made the case that climate change fundamentally impacts the work and ethical obligations of many different types of professions, and that the professional associations that govern those professions need to recognize that.  In the report’s release I said:

Biologists, city planners, foresters, and other professionals are already dealing with the reality of climate change on the ground. Our report highlights how professional associations can play, and in some cases are playing, a leadership role – giving their members guidance [on] how to address climate-related issues competently and in a way that protects the public.

We are excited to see two recent developments demonstrating that engineers, at least, are grappling with the exciting question of the role of professionals and professional associations in addressing climate change:

 

Evolving responsibilities for BC Engineers

APEGBC is one professional association that is leading the way with its release, last week (January 23rd), of a Climate Change Position Paperon the role of their members in addressing climate change: A changing climate in British Columbia: Evolving responsibilities for APEGBC and APEGBC Registrants.  The summary version of their position is:

APEGBC recognizes that the climate is changing and commits to raising awareness about the potential impacts of the changing climate as they relate to professional engineering and geoscience practice, and to provide information and assistance to APEGBC registrants in managing implications for their own professional practice. … APEGBC registrants (professional engineers, professional geoscientists, provisional members, licensees, limited licensees, engineers‐in‐training and geoscientists‐in‐training) are expected to keep themselves informed about the changing climate, and consider potential impacts on their professional activities.  

But the paper then goes on to discuss the implication of that position for engineers and geoscientists.  It’s a must read for anyone who agrees with us that professionals, such as engineers, have a key role to play in addressing climate change. It touches on a number of the recommendations made in Professionals and Climate Change including:

  • Recognizing the urgency of climate change.  While the paper falls short of addressing the need to tackle greenhouse gas emissions – or for the government to lead on that - APEGBC clearly recognizes the urgency of climate change and the implications for British Columbia:

The climate in British Columbia is continuing to change, challenging many traditional assumptions of long ‐ term climate stability. … Future characteristics of temperature, precipitation, the frequency of extreme events and sea level may be affected as the climate continues to change, and is likely to be markedly different from conditions in the recent past.

  • Encouraging or requiring members to receive education and training on climate change.  APEGBC recognizes that responding appropriately to climate change requires that engineers and geoscientists obtain information about how BC’s climate is expected to change and that they obtain education and training on how to use that information.  “In the course of their professional practice, APEGBC Registrants have a responsibility to stay informed about the changing climate and its influence on their practice.”
  • Giving direction to members on best practices related to climate change.  At a general level, the position paper does give APEGBC’s members direction as to the types of questions that they need to ask themselves in relation to climate change.     

[I]t is increasingly important for registrants [such as engineers and geoscientists] to consider how the climate is changing and how it is expected to change in the future. … This presents challenges for APEGBC registrants in carrying out activities that must be resilient to a range of potential future climate patterns. 

  • Perhaps more significantly, APEGBC also recognizes that further action may be required to give APEGBC members direction on best practices: “In consultation with APEGBC registrants, government and subject matter experts, updates may be made to existing codes, guidelines and standards, and new guidelines may be developed where a need is identified.”

APEGBC is not new to climate leadership – we drew on the recommendations of its ad hoc committee on climate change in Professionals and Climate Change.  But they have not been resting on their laurels, and continue to be on the forefront of the debate of what it means to be a responsible professional in a world that is on track for dramatic temperature increases.  In addition to releasing the Climate Change Position Paper, APEGBC has also taken the important step of creating a permanent Climate Change Advisory Group to advise the Association on climate-related matters. 

And on the carbon ethics front

APEGBC’s paper is not the end of the discussion, however.  As noted above, APEGBC has been focused on how to manage the uncertainty of a changing climate, and their paper says little about the need to reduce our collective greenhouse gas emissions (even though that would be a key way to manage uncertainty and protect the public).

It’s our view that professionals – and not just engineers – need to have a discussion about how to interpret their  professional duties to the public and to the environment in the context of greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel use. 

For a sneak preview about what that discussion might look like, check out the Facebook group and LinkedIn page of the recently formed Engineers for Carbon Ethics, a new group which is not affiliated with any professional association. Their description reads: 

WE RECOGNIZE that global warming goes to the heart of engineering ethics, the duty to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public. No other byproduct has the potential to cause as much harm to the public as the greenhouse gases flowing from engineered designs.

WE ENVISION the rise of engineers as guardians of the future climate. Informed by science and guided by ethics, engineers will stand together to phase out fossil combustion, warn the public of its impact, and lead the development of alternatives. The pathways to sustainability will be chosen by society, but they will be paved by engineers.

OUR MISSION is to mobilize engineers to embrace climate responsibility in every aspect of professional practice. We will lend our voices in support of science and challenge those who misrepresent it.

 

And if that’s not enough – here’s the video views of one of the members of Engineers for Carbon Ethics (on geeksagainstevil.com).

The video includes some very forthright suggestions, including:

Anthropocentric climate change goes to the very heart of engineering ethics.  We, as engineers commit ourselves to the world to design safe and reliable products.  Things that will not bring undue harm to people… An engineer who follows this Code of Ethics must, when presented with evidence that their actions are causing harm, stop those actions.  Well, when it comes to climate change, we’re not doing that right now.  We have to acknowledge that as engineers, we’ve unknowingly created a problem with this world’s climate.  We’ve created an entire economy based around fossil fuel combustion.  We’ve designed airplanes that run on jet fuel, power plants that run on coal and gas and automobiles that run on gasoline.  All of those things are putting out carbon dioxide and scientists are now telling us that these machines are hurting the planet.  …

I propose that we create a union of concerned engineers.  A union that would focus primarily on … three tasks:

Number 1. Making sure professional engineers speak out [about climate change] with proper ethics;

Number 2. Making it uncool to work for fossil fuel companies as a new graduate; and

Number 3. Helping those who are already in that field get out. 

Now that’s a conversation that we’re waiting to hear more about.  

Exciting conversations

As we wrote in 2011:

To avert even more serious consequences [of climate change], we need to use every opportunity to cut our emissions of greenhouse gases, while at the same time ensuring that human communities and natural ecosystems adapt to changes in our physical environment occurring as a result of current and past emissions. While expertise in various professions with respect to mitigating and adapting to climate change is growing, both due to market demand and government policy, to date little attention has been paid to what sort of ethical and legal responsibilities professionals might have to provide advice to clients and to offer public leadership on climate change risks and solutions.

When APEGBC, as an official professional association charged under BC law with governing engineers and geoscientists, takes the time to thoughtfully consider the issue of a changing climate, and then speaks out, this is a major development.  We unreservedly applaud APEGBC for its leadership on climate change. 

By contrast, Engineers for Carbon Ethics are still very much outsiders within their own profession, but they are doing us all a service. They are taking the discussion to another level, by asking difficult and critical questions of what professional ethics – and a responsibility for public safety – mean in a fossil fuel economy that is already killing people and contributing to trillions of dollars in losses annually

We hope these separate developments are just the beginning of further discussion, and meaningful action by engineers and other professions. 

By Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer