Many years ago in an engineering lecture, one of my fellow students put his hand up and asked the lecturer a cheeky “What is the point of this degree?” The answer has stayed with me ever since and with climate change starting to grip political discussion his reply has become more relevant.
The lecture was part of a degree in Agriculture Engineering which covered a broad range of skills from mechanical to electronic engineering and included science and economics. We were developing skills that would be used to improve the productivity of agriculture and horticulture through mechanisation and automation. It was the early seventies and there was a lot of economic and political turmoil and therefore there was an air of foreboding. The lecturer, who was a favourite amongst the students, took the question in his stride and replied “if society ever broke down then as an Agriculture engineer you would survive because we could grow crops, rear animals and build machines to generate electricity and pump water”. However, in the silence that followed his reply, we looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and quickly got back to his lecture.
The lecturer’s reply remained with me more as a curiosity rather than a serious comment. But recently there has been a number of reports published where his reply may be relevant. For example the paper: Deep Adaption: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy concluded that all of the initiatives discussed to reduce the human activity on climate change will fail and there will be “a near-term collapse in society”. In a similar vein Simon Kuper’s article Emission impossible? Harsh facts on climate change where he supports the view that climate change will happen and it will take global collective action to limit climate change. He goes on to say that the current political leaders are using green ideology as add-ons to policies that are contributing to the climate change and will not be effective. The article continues “As temperatures rise, the hotter days will start to dominate politics with problems such as less water, more illness, lower productivity and unliveable regions of Europe, a permanent cordon.” And points out that political debate will eventually revolve around which huge engineering projects to finance, and that the current political leaders do not have the expertise to make those decisions. The article concludes with the identification of a new type of climate leader who has an engineering background. Currently, there appears to be a lack of leaders with an engineering background, for example amongst the UK MPs there are none.
Of course the type of engineering background required will be significantly different than the one that I was trained in over forty years ago. Scientific knowledge about the environment and the climate along with huge advances in technology provides new opportunities to tackle the problems of climate change. And although there are new branches of engineering for example geoengineering specialising in reducing the effect of CO2 or limiting the sunlight that reaches the earth they do not face up to the possibility that the initiatives will fail and therefore there will be social breakdown. What is required is a new type of engineer that uses a broad range of engineering skills but also takes the social context into account when mitigating the impact of climate change. The engineering-savvy leader will have many traits For example, being skilled in the use of both the media and social media, and using it to effectively communicate to different sections of society at the local and national level. Image persuading a small seaside town that they will all have to move inland because of rising sea levels or convincing different governments to build a transnational water pipeline so that drinking water can be transported from a wet country to a dry one. Also, because of the global nature of climate change they will have to be recognised as strong climate change leaders with enough credibility to make the compromises that will be required between nations. They will need to be critical about the current and future initiatives to mitigate the effects of climate change so that resources will not be wasted on unfeasible ideas as well as cutting through a cacophony of consultants predictions to get to the core of the problems. They will be passionate, with clear goals and show great courage in taking action against a background of criticism and setbacks.
Although our lecturer’s reply to the question was about how we would survive as individuals if society broke down, the future leaders will be looking at societies and nations as a whole and if the increase in extreme weather is a sign of a climate crisis then lets hope that new type of leader emerges soon!