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.
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.
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.