Engineering Ethics Blog: The Climate Change Report: Danger or Opportunity?


Last
Friday, a day when many Americans are thinking of shopping rather than climate
change, the Fourth National Climate Assessment was released by the U. S.
government.  A massive 1600-page document,
it reportedly goes into great detail about how projected increases in average
temperatures are going to affect the U. S., especially the economy.  I have read only the twelve summary
statements at the beginning of the report, but those are pessimistic
enough.  Floods, storms, and rising
temperatures will threaten to overwhelm our already crumbling infrastructure of
drainage systems, water supplies, power grids, and roads.  Agricultural policies and practices that have
worked in the past will fail to keep up with changes in crop viabilities
worldwide.  The “trillion-dollar
coastal property market” will be threatened with collapse, and, well,
things are going to go you-know-where in a handbasket, generally speaking.

This
is not an alarmist tome.  A lot of
serious professionals have done a lot of work to compile evidence-based
predictions that have focused not just on gee-whiz sentimental issues such as polar
bears (not that I have anything against polar bears), but on bread-and-butter
issues like economic and infrastructure problems that will probably get
worse.  Given the present climate (so to
speak) in Washington, this was a clever strategy on the part of the report’s
organizers.  If money men are in power,
talk about money to get their attention. 
Whether the report will inspire the results the writers want to get is
another question.

Most
people admit there is more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the
atmosphere than there used to be, and that this increase will lead to some
amount of rise in the average global temperature.  The hard part of this topic is to decide what
to do about it.  From my superficial
skimming of the report’s summary, I glean that its recommendations fall into
two categories.

One
is to cut down greenhouse-gas emissions. 
This is the hardest bullet to bite. 
The global economy presently runs largely on fossil fuels, and the green
fantasy of a zero-carbon-emission economy is just that—a fantasy.  I’m not saying it will never happen, but to
achieve it even in a long lifetime from now would require a global dictatorship
that would make Cambodia’s Pol Pot look like Mr. Rogers.  Add to that the fact that greenhouse gases don’t
stay where they are emitted, but eagerly mix into the global atmosphere, and
you have the world’s largest tragedy of the commons—it’s in every nation’s
general interest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s in every nation’s
specific interest to get everybody else to do it while you yourself keep burning
coal, oil, and gas.  Given the practical
realities of international politics, it begins to look like the wisest course
for an individual country is to plan for the worst-case warming scenario
defensively, while doing no more than your fair share to cut back emissions.

And
that’s where another word, “adaptation,” becomes prominent in the
report’s twelve summaries of findings, in the second category of
recommendations.  Here’s where engineers
can make a difference that is pretty uncontroversial.  Are floods going to be predictably more
severe?  Improve flood-abatement planning
and design so that even the new worst-case flood doesn’t kill as many people or
damage as much property.  Are tides going
to be higher on the coasts?  There are
millions of opportunities to do something about that in every stretch of
coastline, and most of them involve spending money on engineering projects.  I’m not saying that engineering firms and
engineers should profit by the harm that global warming might otherwise cause.  But most large-scale public engineering
works—utility and transportation networks, for instance—already involve
forecasting and planning.  Climate
change, to the extent that it is predictable, must factor into those plans, and
can even motivate new or replacement construction as an added incentive to do
something, rather than just letting the old infrastructure continue to crumble
while fighting crisis fires as they arise.

Broadly
speaking, the profession of engineering bears some responsibility for all that
carbon dioxide in the air.  Modern
society as a whole made the decision to use first steam power, then electricity
and fossil-fueled transportation, but none of that could have happened without
engineers.  It is only fitting that
engineers will help us deal with the consequences of higher levels of
greenhouse gases, whatever those consequences may be. 

The
chief danger I see in all the rush to do something about climate change is not
technical, but political.  As the English
philosopher and political scientist Edmund Burke noted in his 1790 work Reflections on the Revolution in France,
institutions are complicated and delicate things.  No one completely understands how a national
economy or a national government works. 
So it is the better part of wisdom to go slowly when attempting to
remedy an ill.  Radical and untried
measures such as draconian carbon taxes could trigger a global economic
depression that could be more harmful than the climate change it was intended
to fight. 

There
are those who seem to think that the world’s worst existential threat is
climate change, and who have the revolutionary attitude that any action is
justified by such a threat, including moving toward a global type of European-Union-style
government that would systematically implement controls on fossil fuels and
energy use.  Burke would caution against
any such move.  While it might achieve
its intended technical goal of reducing climate change, the price in loss of
national sovereignty and the evils that a truly effective world government might
do would not be worth paying, in my estimation.

So
if you have nothing better to do over the Christmas holidays, curl up with your
tablet and the 1600-page Fourth National
Climate Assessment
and become the best-informed person you know about climate
change.  As for me, I’ve got some
Christmas shopping to do instead.



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