Engineers’ Deafening Silence on Climate Change
By not acknowledging human responsibility, our profession is squandering a well-earned chance to influence the most important debate of our time.
Opinion By Domenico Grasso
The most fundamental tenet of the engineering Code of Ethics is to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” Not surprisingly, in a 2020 Gallup poll, the public rated engineering as the second most trusted profession, just ahead of medical doctors and right behind nurses—and well in front of college professors.
Engineers’ structured thinking, typically characterized by pragmatism, objectivity, and a commitment to a rigorous method, exploits the laws of nature for the benefit of humanity. As a result, we have enhanced the quality of lives across the globe. Innovative engineering is the basis of magic-like breakthroughs such as the 3-D printing of replacement parts for not only your car but your body, intelligent robots that can be deployed in search-and-rescue missions, and of course, “smart” technology that has made everyday tasks from monitoring and adjusting your home’s environment to driving and navigating your vehicle virtually effortless.
But the high public regard for engineers doesn’t extend to the knowledge that makes engineering possible. Currently, the impartiality of science and the value of expertise and deep learning appear to be under attack. Nowhere is this more evident than in the raging indifference over the existential threat associated with climate change.
Although most Americans understand that climate change is caused by human activity, our federal government, corporations, and a significant portion of the public continue to place economics and convenience ahead of long-term survival. We only need to look at the evidence: lifestyle choices, recent support of governmental roll-back of tailpipe emission standards, and the opening of pristine wilderness areas for fossil fuel exploration serve as the most recent examples. Notwithstanding the valiant efforts of the scientific community, global activists, and some U.S. cities, national action on climate change remains leaden.
Remarkably, the silence on climate change from our professional engineering societies, representing hundreds of thousands of highly respected and trusted engineers, has been deafening. Only the American Institute of Chemical Engineers has issued a statement calling for a reduction in the primary source of climate change: human-based greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, their appeal lacked the sense of urgency and call to action commensurate with this most dire challenge of our time. It had all the passion and enthusiasm of a sportscaster announcing a three-point shot for the opposing team.
Even more striking, the three largest organizations, the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, have remained on the sidelines when it comes to calling out the root cause of climate change.
To be sure, almost all engineering organizations have released statements about the importance and necessity of “adapting” to climate change. But without appropriately acknowledging and reducing its anthropogenic origin, we are fighting a Sisyphean battle no matter how much we plan for its consequences. Our influence means nothing if we choose not to use it.
As engineers, we have a distinct and special opportunity to use our voices to address one of the most critical matters of our age.
We can do this in multiple ways. First, collectively, via our professional organizations, we should make bold declarations about ameliorating the primary cause of climate change. We need to use our standing with the public to clearly support the scientifically-based results of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and condemn the decision by the United States to pull out of the Paris Agreement.
Second, we can ill-afford to live professional lives based solely on “specific performance,” following directives that hold paramount not the public interest, but the bottom line. Engineers can make a difference by speaking up about climate change in our communities and in our places of practice. Indeed, in a recent National Academies report on grand challenges, a major section is devoted to encouraging engineers to engage with the general public on important issues so that everyone is aware and informed of what is at stake.
Finally, the public is watching. Just as physicians and nurses are more effective when they model a healthy lifestyle, engineers—who hold much of the health of the planet in our hands—will be more effective when our personal behavior and choices are aligned with a circular economy and sustainability goals.
Our planet’s health is the essential sine qua non for us to protect the public’s health and safety. It is time to live up to our reputation as trustworthy, thoughtful, and ethical professionals!
Domenico Grasso is chancellor of the University of Michigan–Dearborn, where he is also a professor of sustainable engineering and public policy.