Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old girl from Sweden has drawn the world’s attention towards climate change.
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In an “Emperor’s New Clothes” style, she called out a room of dignitaries, corporates and climate scientists at the COP summit in Poland telling them: “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children.” Her message is bold and clear; we adults are reluctant to speak the uncomfortable words even when we have clear evidence of having less than 12 years left (according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) to turn things around on all aspects of our society and reduce CO2 emissions by 50%.
It’s high time we engineer a different world and do it fast. But what are we as civil engineers doing to address this urgency? Have we become too comfortable designing to a code for the ordinary conditions? Including a chapter on climate change on every report is not enough and does not absolve us of our responsibility to take a leadership role on tackling this challenge.
Evolving climate change data
Climate change information is evolving, so we need to design for different scenarios and be transparent about the evidence on which we are basing our decisions and the issues we are grappling with. We are too often too concerned about alarming those we consider ill-informed, but we may be seriously wrong to undermine their intelligence. It is time we get better at communication.
Social value of infrastructure comes into play too. If we as engineers are working for communities then we have to look harder and find those with the less heard voices. Because when droughts or floods hit it is the vulnerable who will be hit first, and we are failing them if we are not listening to them. Diversity and inclusion becomes an imperative. If we are to design for the communities we serve, we will need to think beyond traditional skills. We need more engineers and the best of minds to help us solve this global problem.
Only a radical change will ensure our survival as an industry. The threats are there. Sidewalk Labs, a Google company, has just announced its plan to develop a light rail scheme in Toronto as part of a broader scheme aiming to bring affordable housing, heated pavements, raincoats for buildings and autonomous vehicle infrastructure to the city’s waterfront. Its vision is bold: “By combining people-centered urban design with cutting-edge technology, we can achieve new standards of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.”
This is the sort of vision that civil engineering companies should have, we need them to be challenging convention and confronting climate change. If we do this, we are bound to attract millennials to our profession, and who wouldn’t want to work in solving a global problem?
- Anusha Shah is the founder and chief executive of Plan for Earth, chair of Thames Estuary Partnership and co-chair of the ICE London and South East Diversity Task force