Bridging the climate change gap

I asked an assistant recently to perform some research regarding the science of climate change. The instructions were simple, requiring research that would support definitive opinion on the science arguments currently in play.

11/18/2009


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    I asked an assistant recently to perform some research regarding the science of climate change. The instructions were simple, requiring research that would support definitive opinion on the science arguments currently in play.

     

    The reason for the request is that as engineers we should be offering our clients a reasoned perspective on what the world is really facing. We should be in a position to advise how they should make positive steps forward in their planning related to climate change.

     

    The astonishing result is: What answer would you like to hear? There are reasoned arguments supporting diametrically opposed views on the impact of climate change.

     

    There already have been strong moves by government to combat climate change, and the tea leaves show that this is just the beginning. Regardless of belief, engineers need to advise owners that they have to prepare for the inevitable future of Greenhouse Gas regulation.

     

    As a direct result of the challenge of climate change we have seen:

     

    • Design solutions that ease the burden on engineering infrastructure, whether through better stormwater management, on-site wastewater treatment, or reduced electrical and heating demand.

    • A fundamental shift to densify population centers, lessening impact to infrastructure development and transportation. This in turn has led to a valuation of human social spaces and creation of more green space.

    • Greater study efforts related to indoor environments with respect to temperature, humidity, and quality. This has led to significantly better understanding of human environmental tolerances and changes to design parameters.

    • The value of daylighting on the human psyche and the workspace.

    • An acknowledgement that not all space should be redeveloped and that progress can be different from knocking down old and building new.

    • An appreciation for past creations and the skill and understanding that went into past works. Because it is new doesn't mean it is better.

    • An actual valuation of green. While we are still far from a monetary valuation in this sense, society is forcing a valuation process.

    What is the point? Engineers are generally the bridge between hard science and society. The engineering profession holds a great deal of responsibility in getting it right. With the science unresolved or at least in question, engineers have to gather measurable information and data in support of better solutions. Verify the data from the hypothesis when it is built. Resist opinion and concentrate on touching the world lightly. Be firm in what is known and what is conjecture.

     

    Why is this important? The next great challenge is climate change adaptation. As the climate changes, design and construction must change. Adaptation is a risk management discussion. How big do you make something when you know the design parameters will change over time but not how much they will change? It is clear that insufficient information is available, nor will enough information be available when it is needed. It is fundamentally important to gather performance information from past projects to project into the future. It is also fundamentally important to consider the adaptation question from a perspective of resiliency. Knowing that the climactic conditions will change, how will the design fare over time? If it were done a little differently, could it adapt better to the unknown?

     

    Finally, don't kid yourself. Society is looking to the engineering profession to create things that work. They care not that the rules may be changing. This is also becoming a legal question, as guarantees of project performance are becoming more prevalent.

     

     

     

    Author Information

    Phillips is vice president and practice leader for sustainability with Stantec Consulting. He holds a degree in mechanical engineering. His career has been exclusively dedicated to private consulting with experience in a varied number of project areas. Phillips has actively participated on boards including the Assn. of Consulting Engineers of Canada (past vice chair) and the Consulting Engineers of Saskatchewan (past chair).

     



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