Our industry can no longer look the other way at the impacts of climate change. Whether or not you believe our crazy weather and increasing heat are caused by human activity, the facts are irrefutable—the world’s communities are experiencing more frequent flooding, stronger hurricanes with massive storm surges and intense and long-lasting droughts.
The recent report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the world has just 12 years to get matters under control or the effects will be irreversible. If it doesn’t, entire cities may have to be walled in to protect them from sea-level rise; other cities may simply have to relocate to areas where there is less flooding or drought.
Since 2007, the architectural profession has made sustainable design a part of its ethical code. In 2018, the code was expanded to say architects should work with their clients to incorporate strategies to anticipate extreme weather events. The National Society of Professional Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers also encourage sustainability.
Is that enough? As an industry—engineers, contractors, developers and public works officials—we all have an obligation to future generations. Designers and builders of infrastructure can no longer rely, as engineers have for centuries, on past data as the basis for designs. “The planning and design of new infrastructure should, therefore, account for the climate of the future,” according to ASCE’s recently released manual of practice, “Climate Resilient Infrastructure.” The manual continues: “The requirement that engineering infrastructure meets future needs with the uncertainty of future climate is a challenge to engineers.”
The manual then details how to meet that challenge, including using adaptive design. Under an adaptive design approach, infrastructure such as seawalls and roads are built higher and more resiliently, but they aren’t armored for all situations. However, if sea levels and flooding continue to worsen, that infrastructure can be affordably modified to be even higher and stronger in the future.
While designing for climate change can be expensive, the National Institute of Building Sciences has shown that for every federal dollar spent on disaster mitigation, $6 on average is saved in the long run. Engineers and architects need to include those costs and benefits in their presentations and underscore that when it comes to the future, a penny saved isn’t necessarily a penny earned.
If we continue to rebuild without thinking about the future, we will continue the existing cycle of rebuilding, over and over again, wastefully, without longer-lasting structures and systems. We must do better at using new approaches and incorporating resilience into designs.
Pretending that climate change isn’t real, or doing nothing about it, goes against fundamental engineering ethics.