The World Economic Forum’s 2021 analysis of the global risk landscape identifies the failure to act to address climate change and future threats from infectious diseases as having the highest likelihood of occurrence and the highest potential impact on the world. This analysis aligns with the outlook of engineering organizations such as the National Academy of Engineering and the American Society of Civil Engineers in their work to define the engineering challenges of the 21st Century. Engineering Change Lab – USA (ECL-USA) Summit 11 featured a deep dive into how engineering and the engineering community might be transformed by the way it responds to the emerging risks of climate change.
Satellite view of the 2019 Kincade Fire (Source. www.nasa.gov)
Using the State of California as a case study for inquiry, participants in the summit explored the roles the engineering community can play within and across the private sector, public sector, and the non-profit sector to catalyze action, facilitate communication, foster collaboration, drive innovation and entrepreneurship, and shape climate change public policy.
Discussions at the summit were informed and inspired by our provocateurs.
- Dr. Bill Rouse, Research Professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University and a member of the National Academy of Engineering provided an overview of the grand challenge of climate change. He reminded participants that the earth is a system, whose components do not operate on the same time scale, and that stakeholders in our climate have widely varying perspectives. He described the importance of science-based visualization techniques that allow stakeholders to discuss action through a fact-based modeling approach.
- Andrew McAllister, who is serving his second term as a member of the California Energy Commission, set the stage for our discussion of California as a case study. He described the climate change impacts already being felt in California and the state’s ambitious goals for decarbonization and adaptation. He highlighted the critical importance of maintaining reliability simultaneous with the transition of the energy system.
- Heather Rock, Climate Resilience Chief at Pacific Gas and Electric Company, focused on the adaptation and resilience aspects of the climate change challenge. Heather leads PG&E’s efforts to bolster the resilience of its assets, infrastructure, operations, employees, and communities amid the growing risks of climate change. She also emphasized the importance of maintaining safe, reliable, affordable service amid climate impacts – heat waves, flooding, and sea level rise – that are “baked in” for the future. She described PG&E’s work to develop a process for climate vulnerability assessment and new design standards. She said that California’s experience with wildfires in recent years have been a wake-up call to the utility industry.
- John Shinn, Stakeholder Board Leader of the Institute for the Design of Advanced Energy Systems, offered his insights from 32 years’ experience in the oil and gas industry. He emphasized that finding the least cost pathway to decarbonization and resilience is critical to lowering resistance and allowing deeper emissions reductions sooner. He also underscored the need for attracting, training, and retaining a workforce of engineers and technical workers schooled in climate management and resiliency.
- Thelma Briseno, Director of Energy and Water Programs at Climate Resolve, offered the perspective of an engineer working in the non-profit sector to address climate change impacts in under-resourced and disadvantaged communities that feel the impacts of climate change to a greater degree than other segments of society. She described their work to incorporate greenspace and natural systems into conventional infrastructure projects to control flooding, lower urban heat island effects, and improve quality of life. She emphasized the importance of community outreach and engagement in generating socially and environmentally just project outcomes.
In group discussions, participants looked back from the future at how California might have succeeded in meeting its climate change goals and what roles the engineering community could have played in this success. Key points from the discussion highlighted the contributions made by the engineering community and success factors for the engineering community.
- Technological Innovations and entrepreneurship across all facets of the energy system – energy modeling, storage, renewable energy, electrification, micro-grids, energy efficiency, small nuclear, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, small nuclear reactors, and carbon-absorbing construction materials.
- Innovations and advanced application of natural climate solutions – stormwater reuse, natural carbon sinks, forest management.
- New approaches to transportation.
- Advancements in infrastructure resilience.
- Leadership in education of the public, driving behavior change.
- Leadership in science-based public policy shifts, including greater representation in elected office.
- Coalescence around a common climate vision for the engineering community.
- Development of a nationally known climate change scorecard like the ASCE infrastructure scorecard.
- Emergence of “Fauci-like” engineering community spokespersons who are widely respected and listened to.
- Transformation of engineering education to emphasize sustainability and climate change action, systems thinking, public / stakeholder engagement, and multi-disciplinary pathways.
- Major progress in improving diversity and inclusivity that drives innovation and community engagement.
- Openness to multi-disciplinary collaboration – with technologists, with scientists, with environmental scientists, and with the multitude other stakeholders and communities touched by climate change.
- Development of public policy acumen across the engineering community.
- Focus on equity in the transition of the energy system and in helping communities enhance their resilience to climate change impacts.
In the final exercise of the summit, participants reflected on the potential emergence of a “noble purpose” for the engineering community centered on the climate change imperative. Participants enthusiastically embraced this concept and developed 12 different initial drafts of a “Noble Purpose Statement.” These drafts included several common elements, primarily embracing a leadership role for the engineering community in educating the public, advancing shifts in public policy, designing and implementing energy infrastructure, fostering engineering social entrepreneurship, and transforming engineering practice. There was consensus among the participants to continue work on the noble purpose idea.
All provocateur presentations are available on the ECL-USA website (Summit Presentations). You can also see the recording of the summit on YouTube (Summit Recording). The final report for the summit is available at this link (Summit 11 Report).