Climate breakdown – uncivil engineering questions

At the start of the summer I felt that the best contribution I could make to tackling the climate emergency was to offer my skills as a trainer and a facilitator to Extinction Rebellion (XR). In June, I joined the team that run induction sessions for new members of XR Bristol. The following words I’ve adapted from the script we use as the basis for the induction sessions.

‘The Government has an obligation to provide protection for the citizens it represents. This is the basis of the social contract upon which the citizens give the government the power to rule.

‘For thirty years scientists have been warning us about the threat that climate change poses to humanity, and during that time governments have failed to take meaningful action. The 2018 Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change report is clear that we have have just twelve years (now down to eleven – tick tock) to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere by 40% or risk facing a global catastrophe that will kill hundreds of thousands every year, and will effect everyone on the planet, rich or poor.

‘The UK government knows the science and has failed to act. It is therefore failing in its duty of care for its citizens – it is breaking its social contract. It is our duty then to rise up and force the government to take drastic action, or to force a change of government to one that will make tackling the climate emergency its number one priority.

‘History shows that the most successful way to force the government to change direction or step down is through mass, non-violent direct action and civil disobedience.’

I share these words because for me this is where the journey to ending the status quo and taking serious, urgent action on the climate emergency starts.

These words force me to admit that what society is doing to tackle climate breakdown is not enough – it is so far from being enough that incremental improvement won’t get us there. And that is despite the best efforts of so many people.

These words also highlight the culpability of people in power for failing to recognise the seriousness of the situation we face and for failing to take appropriate action. Equally, it points out our responsibility to speak truth to power, and if necessary change who holds power in order to avoid an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe of our own making.

That’s how the journey started in June. It felt like a step into a brave new world of campaigning – a world with which I was not familiar. But through July and August, over the course of conversations with many people, I’ve realised that I can make a much greater contribution is by starting to questions in the domain from which I come – civil engineering.

The scientists have raised the alarm – now is the time for the engineers to propose some solutions, and fast. This is absolutely at the core of what engineering is about: providing for the needs of humanity without compromising the world for generations to come. Speaking positively for a moment, the challenge of reshaping our built environment to achieve net-zero emissions is a fantastic design opportunity. It is an opportunity to create a just world in which communities live in harmony with the ecosystem that supports them. The adaption of our buildings, towns and cities and the creation of the necessary green infrastructure stands to create lots of jobs, especially given the distributed nature of reducing the carbon footprint of almost every dwelling in the UK.

Of course, a commitment to sustainability is at the core of the professional guidelines for a civil engineer; however the ability for many engineers to enact these principles is constrained by the commercial imperatives of the companies they work for, and the vested interests of industry.

And so I think it is time for engineers to start asking the leaders of industry some serious questions. On my list are:

  • Is the leadership of the engineering industry telling the truth to its members about the grave threat climate breakdown poses to society?
  • Engineers have the ear of government – is the profession speaking truth to power about the grave threat climate breakdown poses to society?
  • Are the professional institutions lobbying the government to take serious action on reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2025?
  • Are the professional institutions willing to remove backing from projects that are likely to be contributing increasing net emissions?
  • Will the institutions provide any protection for individuals who refuse to work on projects that are contributing to, rather than reducing, greenhouse gas emissions?
  • The construction industry provides employment for many people. Is industry considering how to create a just transition to green jobs in which they can help to build the sustainable built environment of tomorrow? Will industry provide training to enable this transition?
  • Are the professional institutions encouraging universities to change their courses so that civil engineering students learn about the climate emergency and how they can best used their skills to contribute to tackling this emergency.

These may seem like uncivil questions for a civil engineer to be asking, but they go right to the heart of what enables or prevents civil engineers for fulfilling their ethical duty.

The answer to many of these questions, I suspect will be no. But through urgent dialogue, some of these questions may move to yes. The ground is changing quickly under our feet. The UK Structural Engineers Declare movement is an indicator that climate breakdown is on the agenda, and is a really positive demonstration of leadership on this issue from within the profession.

But if, at the highest level, the answer to these questions stays stuck at no, then we need to start asking in whose interest the leadership of the engineering industry is really working.

I am looking for people to work with to make sure the climate emergency is absolutely at the top of the civil engineering industry’s agenda. If you are interested then please get in touch.

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  1. This is a great article, and these are exactly the right questions to be asking.

    We need to hold our industry, our leaders, and ourselves to account.

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