Are civil engineers doing enough to account for climate change?

Constructive criticism is never a bad thing.

So when Emily Grubert, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, expresses concerns about how urgently her profession is approaching issues related to climate change, it’s only with an eye toward progress.

Grubert discussed climate change issues on a recent episode of the ASCE Plot Points podcast. Read the highlights below or listen to the complete interview.

Civil Engineering Source: Do you feel like civil and environmental engineering as professions are where they need to be in relation to climate change?

Grubert: I don’t. I think a lot of professions probably aren’t. I think as a society in general we’re not where we need to be in relation to climate change.

But I think particularly within the field of civil and environmental engineering, where we are interacting so much with the built environment and so much with the aspects of the built environment that really affect people’s day-to-day lives, we have not professionally integrated some of the implications of climate change enough yet in my view.

I think part of that is related to the fact that a lot of the regulatory structures that we work within are also not there. There’s been some really interesting research on stormwater design standards and such and how those are actually affected by potential climate change impacts. So there’s a bit of push and pull here. But I think that as a profession we are not dealing with it to the extent that we’re going to need to.

Grubert

Source: So how do we get the profession to the place where it needs to be?

Grubert: I think one of the really important places where we can take a leadership role professionally – and I’m an academic, so I think this particularly falls on that side of it where we are training civil and environmental engineers – is just making it clear to people how much this actually will affect professional practice and design in particular. … Of course, having a regulatory basis to act on some of that knowledge is important, and I think will help a lot if we can get to that place. But even from this kind of internal perspective, I think really understanding how a lot of the assumptions we’ve made as a profession for a long period of time maybe don’t hold anymore is an important place to go.

One of the things that I think about a lot, personally, is that we do accept a lot of different forms of dynamism when we’re doing design. So things like the population changing, things like understanding the regulations about water contamination changes, things like this, we’re used to incorporating those into our design decisions.

I think framing some of the impacts we expect to see from climate change in the same way – sort of like you plan for population growth or population decline or whatever it is you’re facing locally – planning to actually know that you are going to see some impacts and some uncertainty around particularly water and temperature in the future is a really important direction for us to go.

Source: Why do you think it’s easier for folks to accept planning for changes in population than it is to accept mitigating for climate change?

Grubert: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think there are a couple of different potential explanations for it.

And I have not looked into the one true scientific answer to this, but intuitively to me, I think it really is because as a profession we have such a safety focus, in this particular case, we’re maybe losing a little bit of sight of what these big changes could mean versus what we are comfortable with and what we understand.

With population, we have a long history of understanding that that matters when making decisions. So being conservative and trying to be protective of the public means acknowledging this historical pattern that we know matters, and that we know really, really affects the way we do projects.

I think with climate … the tension really emerges where we have a profession where we want to be pretty sure about how our stuff is going to perform and combining that with something where there’s this message that maybe we’re not quite sure what’s going to happen, it feels safer to rely on what we know and rely on what we know has worked in the past. And that tendency to extrapolate from the past rather than anticipating the future is part of what I think is going on here. …

And it is a change in practice, even though a lot of the rhetoric and a lot of the goals are fairly similar: protecting health, safety, and welfare.

Source: If I’m a civil engineer and I’m in the middle of my career, I’m 50 years old, doing pretty well, and I want to keep on doing pretty well for another 20 years, what’s in it for me? Why should I take a risk potentially and stop doing things I’ve been doing successfully for the last three decades?

Grubert: It’s a fair question. I think one of the ways to reframe that potentially is to think about whether it actually is a departure from we’ve been doing.

I think if you’ve been successful working for the past three decades, a lot of that probably has been a focus on the public and a focus on doing really good work that is enhancing the human condition. So, framing it that way, actually accounting for climate change and accounting for this changed condition that matters for the types of things that we care about as a profession and as individuals, I think is a fairly obvious next step.

In terms of what that means locally, though, indeed that probably does affect practice a bit. But I think the attitude of doing really good work that creates public good is not the thing that changes, but some of the specifications may. And so to that, I think really it does come down to an ethical issue. We’re designing long-lived infrastructure in many cases. We’re maintaining infrastructure that is intended to exist for a long time. We are developing systems that really influence people’s lives.

“As a profession we have such a safety focus, in this particular case, we’re maybe losing a little bit of sight of what these big changes could mean versus what we are comfortable with and what we understand.”

Emily Grubert

So adjusting practice to account for a new truth I think really is an ethical matter at the end of the day. I don’t think from a top-down perspective that does change people’s approach to their jobs very much, but it does change the implementation.

Source: Tell me about the socio-technical things you see changing at the same time that are probably part and parcel of climate change but are also a separate thing.

Grubert: We kind of see climate change as this big external change that’s happening to the fundamental physical system around us. … And I think that as we plan around climate change, not forgetting that there are other things that are changing at the same time that are a little bit more within human control, in the form of socio-technical systems, that is really important to ensuring that our designs around climate change actually reflect all the dynamism that we’re experiencing.

Specifically, I work on energy systems, particularly how energy systems interact with the environment. … The power system is changing dramatically. Going from … a primarily fossil-based energy system and a particularly fossil-based electricity system where power can be generated on demand … into a world where, largely for carbon reasons, we’re moving toward renewable resource use, that has a lot of interesting implications for the way that the grid is operated.

Even here, planning around both of those transitions at the same time where there is this external climate forcer but also this responsive socio-technical difference where we’re fundamentally operating the electricity system differently is important as we model.

I work a decent amount on building systems as well. One of the things that we’re seeing as we think about the transition of the energy system – again partially in response to climate change – is that some of the assumptions that we’ve historically made are actually wrong when you consider the way that people are responding to these impulses.

Historically there’s been a relatively big focus on energy efficiency in buildings. And that’s still really, really important, but because we’re responding to climate change and a variety of other issues in part by making the grid cleaner, a lot of the energy efficiency measures that we may have taken have now very different performance standards because you’re not saving electricity that’s as dirty as it used to be.

So in the past you might’ve been willing to do something that used a lot of embodied energy in order to create a more efficient building structure over time. Maybe that doesn’t make sense from an environmental perspective or a cost perspective anymore when the grid changes. So recognizing that there’s dynamism not just in the climate system but also in the response to the climate system and in the response to a lot of other things, frankly, as well I think is really important to remember as we do consider how our design process and our maintenance processes, our operational processes, need to change in response to this very significant issue.

Source: When you look at things and say, “Wow, what we thought was cutting-edge practice 15, 20 years ago already needs to change,” does that scare you? Or is that kind of just part of how this works?

Grubert: I mean it worries me a lot. I don’t know if it scares me, partially because I am in that privileged position where I probably will be dead before it’s really, truly 100 percent bad. I’m not trying to argue that we’re not already experiencing impacts of climate change and that it won’t get worse during my lifetime, but I think one of the things that does worry me quite a bit is that we may try to make decisions that are oriented around a better environmental outcome without fully challenging all of the assumptions that go into that decision and therefore will make bad decisions.

So there’s some historical examples of this, where we think we’re doing something that’s good for the environment but we didn’t fully understand the system that well. So recycling a lot of the time can be more resource-intensive than landfilling. And with all of this stuff, you’re making tradeoffs across a number of different decision criteria, and you make a choice that favors one thing over another, and somebody else might make the opposite choice. But I think when we think about climate impact in particular, there are a couple of types of assumptions that we may make really well-intentioned that don’t turn out to be true, and therefore cause us to spend a lot of effort and a lot of capital transitioning to something that isn’t as useful as we thought it might be. …

I think we could make bad decisions without realizing that we’re making bad decisions if we’re not very careful to challenge all of the assumptions that go into those choices.

Source: But that being said, not making any decision is worse than any of those options, right?

Grubert: Yeah, absolutely. I guess my mission then is to recognize the assumptions when they’re there, because I think it’s really easy to just assume something is true and that it is statically true and that there’s no way that’s going to change. So when I think about how I try to train my students really looking for those hidden assumptions and trying to use the best possible information that we have, that’s all we can really do.

Because like you said, we have to make decisions. I just hope we can make decisions recognizing when we’re actually choosing among different assumptions and actually making choices rather than kind of ignoring something that maybe we could have seen and not incorporating the best information we currently have.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for posting such an interesting interview. Perhaps I’m just one of those 50-something year old civil engineers who has been doing pretty well through my career and wants to keep on doing pretty well for another 20 years, but after reading this piece twice I can only say that it actually vindicates many of us civil engineers who have apparently been lax about incorporating climate change considerations in our work. I suspect this has largely been driven not by the forces of human inertia, but by our recognition of the limited value of forecasts in many of the disciplines that influence the civil engineering profession.

    One of the basic limitations of climate science is that it covers a range of topics that simply don’t lend well to scientific inquiry in a manner that relates to a “built” human environment that becomes functionally obsolete within a fairly well defined period of time. Of all the engineering disciplines, civil engineering is the one where these limitations are most likely to be ingrained in our work habits and design parameters. As one astute instructor of mine once told the undergraduate students in his hydraulic design class: “There’s no point in agonizing over the fourth decimal place when you’re ultimately going to round your answer to the nearest whole number anyway.”

    Those of us involved in the planning and design of infrastructure that has a design life measured in decades are well aware of how little the external natural forces on this infrastructure change over long periods of time. The average temperature of the earth has apparently risen by 0.5 to 0.6 degrees Celsius since the Empire State Building was constructed in 1930. The building is still there today, was able to withstand the impact of a B-25 bomber crash in 1945, and by all accounts is doing quite well. Much of our nation’s infrastructure has been rehabilitated extensively or even demolished and replaced since then. Any civil engineers who started their careers in 1970 would have seen widely varying — even contradictory — forecasts over the course of a relatively short period of time. These ranged from ominous warnings in the 1970s of a looming ice age to silly “hockey stick” graphs of rising temperatures and predictions about disappearing ice caps that have never come to fruition.

    I cannot recall ever reading a study about the impact of climate change on our infrastructure over the LAST 90 years. Every notable publication on the subject I have seen in recent years is littered with terms like “potential” and “likely” to describe future conditions, while lacking a rigorous application of scientific principles to explain prior conditions in the years and decades leading up to the publication of the study. It would be understandable, therefore, for civil engineers to take any predictions about the next 90 years with a healthy dose of skepticism. We already build substantial safety factors into everything we design. Under these circumstances, many of us will ignore the statistical noise at the fourth decimal point and keep rounding off to the nearest whole number!

  2. Dear Tom: I’m not sure what you do in your civil engineering daily work, but if its structural engineering, perhaps i can understand your answer and lack of understanding of what the data is showing. However, many of us involved in the areas of earth and environmental science, hydrology, hydraulics or water resources are already seeing the effects of climate change in the data collected in different parts of the world and the United States – precipitation, river and groundwater level responses to name a few. Those involved in any kind of long-term assessment of drainage, dam and levee design, and water availability should also be looking at these impacts. In some of these cases, the ‘statistical noise’ will not be out to the fourth decimal point of the factor of safety, but will impact the first decimal point, and increase the probability of failure. The bottom line is this – as a profession, society is counting on us to do our jobs and give them good input on how to design for the future. Looking only at the ‘way things have always been done’ and counting on factors of safety that were developed with ‘past conditions’ is really short-sighted. We’re better than that, and i hope for the sake of our children and grandchildren that we don’t stick our heads in the sand. In general, we civil engineers should continue to count on the science and the data to lead us to good decisions.

    • Is climate science good science? I don’t think it is. You don’t commit large resources to fix an imaginary problem. I don’t think climate science fully understands the complexity of climate and simply blames everything on mankind’s CO2 emissions. I see climate scientists making dire predictions based on poor climate computer modeling that greatly overstates impacts.

    • Excellent points, John. My area of focus is transportation planning and design. Hydrology has its own set of challenges simply because it’s one area where the availability and accuracy of historical data are limited. It’s obviously a challenge, for example, to design infrastructure based on 100-year or 500-year storm events when accurate meteorological data records did not exist before the 1880s. For all the information we have at our fingertips (literally) about current conditions around the world, we have no way of knowing the air temperature in Massachusetts when the Plymouth Colony was established in 1620, the relative humidity in Philadelphia on July 4th of 1776, or the barometric pressure in Gettysburg when Lincoln gave his famous address in November 1863.

      As I write this message I am sitting at a desk in a location that was once at the bottom of a lake left behind with the retreat of the Wisconsin Glacier at the end of the last Ice Age. There are clearly limitations on designing even infrastructure that is intended to last for decades. I would ask a simple question that would apply to any major infrastructure project from the past — whether it be the Empire State Building, the Hoover Dam, or a section of the Interstate Highway System: If you could go back in time to the 1930s-1950s and look ahead at how the climate has changed in the decades since then, would you have designed any of these things differently?

      • Thanks for the relatively balanced response to John’s comment, Thomas. To answer your closing question, probably not the Empire State Building or the Hoover Dam, but definitely a section of an Interstate Highway System:

        https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/30/us/big-sur-road-collapse-trnd/index.html

        This is definitely a hydrology issue. Sure, the roadway surface may have been able to handle the ESALs over its life, but a roadway, and even its immediate bedding/foundation isn’t an isolated system.

    • Thank you, John. My work is in water resources, and it only takes a year or two of paying modest attention to the news and current municipal efforts to see how civil engineering and planning are (or have been) failing to account for shifts we’ve been observing for decades. I dislike the language “X-year storm,” and even the laughable attempt at making it more clear, the “1/x % storm.”

      As much as anything, it seems like a failure of education. When people don’t understand why the storm drain system that safely and comfortably conveys a little rain shower later fails to convey stormwater runoff during a hurricane, it speaks volumes (no pun intended).

  3. We who have studied and worked in the built environment understand that conditions and criteria are constantly changing. Hydrologists and structural engineers are working with vastly different criteria than we all used 40 or 50 years ago. Climate is constantly changing and will continue to change. We currently appear to be experiencing a warming trend however the historical ice core data seem to indicate we should be entering into a cooling trend. The globe has already experienced both and will undoubtedly see them both again no matter how much of our GDP we spend chasing incremental changes in global temperature. Innovative planning and design coupled with cost and benefit data should be very important aspects of any conversation we have related to our changing climate. After spending 40+years in the engineering profession I am certain that we professional engineers and scientists will do our best to manage the coming environmental changes for the good of humanity regardless of our age and/or status.

  4. Stop being paranoid over Climate Change. It has happened since Noah build the arch. We had the ice age and we had the dust bowel days all before everyone got paranoid overr a .01 degree increase in temperature. This now has been reversed and the temperatures are dropping. In fact, the ice cap in the north pole is increasing.
    So please be honest and tell them the truth.
    By the way, move the temperature recording stations away from buildings and pavement so they can record accurate readings.

  5. Climate change fear is unfounded. This octagenaria has experienced climate change for many years. In the 70’s another ice age was predicted. Al Gore’s prediction many years ago proved to be false. Humans exhale CO2. Trees absorb CO2 and produce Oxygen.
    Man is powerless to control climate. I’m surprised that ASCE and some of its members promote the fear of tragedy coming from an unproven theory of climate change as the cause of future catastrophic damage to man and property.

  6. I’m really surprised at the number of “climate change science is unfounded” comments here. This science is completed settled (in terms of causes) assuming you get your science from scientists, or the overwhelming majority of them, anyway. The predictions regarding exact magnitude of effects are *somewhat* uncertain, but presented in very clear ranges, none of which fall into the “don’t worry about it, no issue” bin.

    https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/
    ^ This is among the least likely sources to accept unfounded claims and science, and even NASA somewhat softly states directly that the facts surrounding climate change include… wait for it… that anthropogenic CO2 emissions are the most important driver.

    Also, straw-man arguments like “fear catastrophes” and “paranoid” are designed to take away from the legitimacy of a stormwater engineer saying “the ‘100-year’ storm design criteria are now meaningless in their context, because we see the 100-year storm approximately every 3-5 years.” The regulatory framework for civil engineering work is rapidly losing legitimacy in certain contexts/arenas. And the planning and design of built environments is exacerbating the issues. Google ‘Ellicott City flood’ or ‘Houston Harvey’ and see what I mean.

    When a hydrologist tells you climate change affects their work, believe them, don’t tell them “concrete doesn’t care.” Sure, a reinforced 3000 psi concrete structure designed to withstand hurricane-force winds will probably not see a big issue with climate change over its design life, until you look at the likelihood that the geotechnical work the foundation design was based on is garbage once the entire city stays submerged for three weeks, and the ground comes out from under your “indestructible” building.

    There is a balanced, calm, and appropriately professional space between “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!” and “pshh, climate change isn’t caused by people, so stop fear-mongering.”

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