Urgent and practical climate action

Climate change is re-focusing the duty of professional engineers and geoscientists

by Bruce Mason

It is the fundamental duty of engineers and geoscientists to refuse to work on all new fossil-fuel infrastructure. That is the dire warning of two well-known local engineers. In order to save life on the planet, they are calling for a drastic change in the nature of their professions, a return to the expressed basic mandate, to lead the way to essential, innovative design and sustainable infrastructure.

“We must stop throwing more fossil fuels onto the fire causing global warming. We need to treat this as an unprecedented emergency, a crime against humanity,” write David Huntley and Romilly Cavanaugh, who are expressing their concern through Common Ground. Huntley is Professor Emeritus, Physics, at Simon Fraser University, and holds two engineering degrees and Cavanaugh is the Professional Engineer who was recently arrested for protesting the dangerous expansion of Kinder Morgan Canada’s pipeline system, which is being hotly debated in Canada and has drawn widespread media attention. Cavanaugh previously worked on that pipeline system when it was owned by Trans Mountain Pipeline.

They report that protecting public safety and the planet is clearly mandated in the codes of the professional organizations. The code of ethics of the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (fidic.org) states, “The consulting engineer shall seek solutions that are compatible with the principles of sustainable development.” Engineers and Geoscientists BC, the association that governs the practice of these two professions, has a code of ethics stating that its members and licensees shall “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public, the protection of the environment, and promote health and safety within the workplace.”

In Alberta, which is the source of toxic diluted bitumen transported through the pipeline, the Professional Engineers and Geoscientists Guideline for Ethical Practice states, “Professional engineers and geoscientists shall, in their areas of practice, hold paramount the health, safety and welfare of the public and have regard for the environment.”

Huntley and Cavanaugh note, “Taken at face value, the above codes of ethics mean that none of these professionals should engage themselves in the design or construction of any new fossil-fuel infrastructure, but rather attention and effect should be put into developing renewable and sustainable energy resources.

“There has been a great deal of media coverage recently both for and against the planned Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Much of it is political, but of utmost importance are the ramifications for the planet. Justin Trudeau has stated that the expansion approval was based on science and he is convinced of the project’s safety and necessity, but the pipeline is neither necessary nor safe for the people of Canada and for the planet.”

“It is now well established that the use of fossil fuels is causing a climate crisis for the planet as a result of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. The effects on the safety, health and welfare of the public are well known and are the worst for those in the countries that have contributed the least amount of greenhouse gases. That in itself is a social justice issue. Wealthy industrialized countries, like Canada, have created the climate crisis that we all now face, but developing countries will be hit the hardest by it. If Canada turns its back on the poorest nations, it will be a moral failure on our part.”

emissions reduction chart
GHG reductions needed to keep temperature increases to between 1.5 and 2 O C. The different lines show that the longer we wait, the faster the decrease has to be.

Huntley also spells out facts that must be clearly understood and immediately acted upon by everyone: “It is essential to understand that the problems caused by climate changes will not stop with cessation of greenhouse gas emissions. What has been emitted up to the present will continue to cause additional global warming for decades, even centuries; we can expect that even if there are zero further emissions, the temperature rise above pre-industrial times will be 1.4 °C. In order to limit the temperature rise to 2 °C and avoid the most catastrophic consequences from climate change, it is necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 % by 2030 (see the accompanying chart). Canada’s target is only a 30 % decrease and there is no credible plan for even that. This is despite Canada’s commitment to the Paris agreement to keep the temperature rise to under 2 °C.

“Engineers always consider risks in their analyses. They do not design a bridge that has even a one percent probability of failing in its design lifetime. They should not be designing or building infrastructures that risk taking the planet into a runaway climate disaster. The science is clear. We need to start decreasing greenhouse emissions quickly and immediately.”

Cavanaugh emphasizes “We could be transitioning to clean and renewable energy sources now, but there is a lack of support by the federal and provincial governments. Trudeau has continued existing subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and is even promoting the tar sands industry. All this, while elsewhere the world is on the cusp of phasing out fossil fuel usage. Entire nations, like Sweden, are making commitments to become fossil fuel free.”

Where is Canada’s sustainable energy plan? Where is the federal government’s vision for the future? Where are our solar homes? These are among the urgent questions being asked by Huntley, Cavanaugh and an increasing number of Canadians, who are witnessing the disruption of the climate and the collapse of life on Earth.

These two engineers – like so many global citizens – are very aware of the numerous examples from other jurisdictions where government incentives are facilitating the immediately essential transition to renewable energy. For example, they point out that, in Germany, there are about 1.5 million photovoltaic systems, generating about seven percent of the country’s electricity. Note there are more hours of sunshine each year here than in Germany.

“Canada is rich in renewable energy sources including wind, geothermal and solar. We can make the switch to a clean and green future and can have a stronger economy and healthier society for it,” state Huntley and Cavanaugh.

It is now time for engineers and geoscientists to ask these existential questions. And to immediately begin to urgently search for answers and solutions as a top priority. This is at the heart and soul of their chosen work and the expectations of humanity.

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