I was faced with an interesting truth this week. As an unofficial, non-scientific poll in ASCE Smartbrief showed, the majority of civil engineers don’t understand climate change. The poll was included in their daily email (which I find very informational and strongly recommend it). The reason for the poll was because of a reader’s comments to ASCE:
I was hoping that engineers would take a progressive view on the issue of global warming and climate change, but I wasn’t holding my breath on the issue. For those who can’t read the options, they are:
- Our use of fossil fuels has created a crisis. We need emission reduction regulations to halt climate change
- We should look into alternative energy sources, but climate change isn’t as dire as some predict.
- The climate-change models are so flawed, we have no idea what’s really going on.
- Climate change is natural. Regulations will only benefit some companiees and will hurt most of the rest of us.
Voting has ended and the results were posted in the following day’s Smartbrief. Here are the final results:
Results show that the majority of engineers are uncomfortable with the topic of climate change, believing either that it is not caused by humans, not a real problem, or not enough is known to justify intervention. In fact, only 25% of engineers thought emission reduction regulations were required.
Once again, I am concerned that ASCE is trying to portray themselves as “leaders of sustainability” but not spending any time educating their own members. (see my previous posts on ASCE
) The consequences of global warming are severe, but many engineers have chosen to ignore the risks completely. A great comment by Daniel Kurkjian
on ASCE’s blog summarizes what ASCE itself should be communicating to the profession:
Scientists are in agreement that carbon dioxide increases global temperatures and that can have significant negative effects on our way of life. Civil engineers have a role to plan in lobbying regulators to make sure that new rules are phased in and do not cripple construction and infrastructure development.
It’s unbelievable to hear comments on the ASCE website claiming global warming is not real and the carbon dioxide is somehow not a pollutant. At elevated concentrations in the atmosphere CO2 raises temperatures, which can have devasting impacts on climate and the way we live. That defines a pollutant; something that can damage the enviroment at elevated concentrations.
It’s understandable to fear an over-reach by the goverment that hurts business. However, the way to deal with that isn’t to deny reality and claim global warming isn’t associated with carbon dioxide pollution. The role of the civil engineer is to make the government aware of the imapcts of their regulations and to seize the business opportunities that will come with being current on regulations.
This is an excellent statement, I hope that ASCE will continue to hear these comments and realize that being a leader in sustainability means educating ASCE members. As this comment so rightly points out, it is unbelievable that ASCE would entertain the idea that climate change has not been associated with CO2 increases and human activity.
The problem with global warming “skeptics” is that they are not skeptics at all. A true skeptic is one who approaches an issue with an open mind, refusing to be swayed by arguments until the evidence is presented. Instead, those who deny global warming are the opposite of skeptics, having decided their opinion before evidence was presented. For a quick look at the evidence that is accepted by the global scientific community, which Daniel Kurkjian referred to in his comment, see my earlier post on Global Warming Potential.
ASCE continually states how the civil engineering profession must be a leader in sustainability. Recently, ASCE has come out ready to battle the causes and effects of climate change. It’s a good idea, because engineers will need to be involved.
So, to establish itself as a leader in sustainability, ASCE has achieved the following:
- included non-binding, wishy-washy language requiring sustainability in their code of ethics (posted entry about this here)
- started a committee to create a green design certification program (my take here)
- put out a press release of an agreement with CSCE and ICE (pdf of agreement) committing… actually I can’t quite understand what they are doing. It says something about “assisting all governments through the development of a low-carbon infrastructure road map setting out key steps up to 2050.”
I guess we civil engineers will get around to that leading in the sustainability issue pretty soon. The agreement includes terms like “develop” “evaluate” “consider”. I have a hard time believing that we still have questions. It has been 12 years since the Kyoto Protocol was abandoned by the US, it has been over 2 years since the IPCC report concluded that anthropogenic climate change was indeed occurring and likely to cause bad things to happen, and the draft Waxman-Markey bill has been out since March of this year.
My point here is that civil engineers are being awfully passive in their attempts to lead sustainability. Somehow ASCE and civil engineers think we need to develop new ideas. The press release even proposes committing resources to carbon sequestration, but only when cost-effective. Guess what, it ain’t cost-effective (BBC article).
If ASCE wants to be a leader on sustainability they can catch up to the scientists and experts that are leading the way. They should announce unequivocal support for the UN’s Copenhagen meeting and the ultimate goal of serious carbon emission reduction. Civil Engineers should support the highest levels of emission reduction, no political or economic excuses should prevent us from arguing for what is right.
In the meantime the USGBC has started up a tremendously successful green building ratings program and independent architects have achieved deep committments with Architecture 2030 and greening of the campus initiatives. That is leadership. It is effective and it is inspiring.
On the other hand, ASCE’s press release does mention addressing transportation issues. Great start, but if you look at the cover for their new publication Guiding Principles for the Nation’s Critical Infrastructure you will see the main focus is !Highway Construction! Sustainability is essentially equated with resiliency in the document, which I guess means you build the infrastructure even bigger and stronger. It makes me wonder if the organization really understands what sustainability is.
In the latest ASCE president’s blog, it almost seems as if ASCE doesn’t want a cap on emissions. It at least wasn’t clear to the commenters, all of whom have agreed (or claimed to agree) with the entry and have been convinced to write their politicians asking them to strike it down based on no evidence of climate change. It’s a shame, because we’ve already found ourselves in a deep hole and we haven’t even realized that we’re the ones with the shovel.
My youth and contrarian tendencies sometimes causes me frustration, but I know ASCE is moving in the right direction. Quoting a recent seminar by Jeff Speck “you can always trust Americans to make the right decisions once they have exhausted all the other possibilities”
Also in the news:
The latest news about sustainability in the engineering industry is from the ASCE Smartbrief entry about ASCE initiative. By the way, the smartbrief newsletter is a great service and I strongly encourage you to sign up. Back to the issue at hand… the ASCE Sustainability Task Force has decided to create a new program that will “certify civil works”. The ASCE president wrote (see blog post here) the following to explain the reasoning for this action:
We believe that ASCE and civil engineers should be the ones who establish good practices related to civil works.
We went green long ago; we just did not take credit for it.
If we fail to act, many other professions will be happy to do it for us and impose their ideas on our practice. We know better than others how to use our skills to benefit mankind by creating energy efficient and environmentally sensitive projects. Now, we will do just that.
I am a big fan of sustainability and green design, but I don’t know if ASCE’s certification program is such a good idea. For starters, if they want to emulate the LEED program then they are about 10 years away from market uptake, and probably 15 years from market penetration (and that is no guarantee). It took the USGBC quite a bit of effort and time to achieve consensus on how to define sustainability, and even longer to market the program to construction professionals. To assume that ASCE can replicate this process in the same time period is ridiculous. This plan cannot be ultimately successful because we are already too late. We must lower our CO2 emissions quickly, I don’t see this plan catching up to the LEED program in time to make a difference.
Also, Klotz’s own blog post betrays the real state of our profession. “We went green long ago… Now, we will do just that” [use our skills to benefit mankind by creating energy efficient and environmentally sensitive projects]. So did we really go green long ago, or are we just starting now? Let’s just say I’m not convinced.
Another problem is that the ultimate goal has nothing to do with sustainability, but “communicating that fact to the public”. It sounds like a PR gimmick from ASCE. It also sounds like a “me too” plan that does not have any original thought involved. If the ASCE sustainability task force is truly interested in sustainability, why is their best and most exciting piece of news that they are reproducing a program that someone else already does well?
The next problem I see is that this program may not be compatible with LEED Accreditation. The USGBC has spent a lot of time and money making sure their own program promotes sustainability in the construction industry, but also social and ecological sustainability. Studying for the LEED program promotes a greater understanding of what other professionals in the design field are concerned about. If civil engineers withdraw from that process then we are losing the greatest benefit of the LEED program, and certainly not learning a key lesson of the past years. Integrate, don’t isolate.
Klotz believes that “civil engineers should be the ones who establish good practices related to civil works” and that “We know better than others how to use our skills to benefit mankind”. I actually don’t agree. Engineers are technical specialists, we use applied science. Engineers cannot exist in a vacuum, we can’t set design criteria without collaboration with other fields. ASCE cannot unilaterally decide how to balance life safety versus sustainable design goals, this requires a public debate involving others.
I haven’t seen any of the proposal beyond this short release by the president, but to move forward quickly on this proposal would require a top-down decision totally within the ASCE organization. That would concern me as well. We cannot be responsible for setting criteria, designing our structures to meet those criteria, and then judging if we met our own criteria. That kind of system has no oversight and no motivation to raise the standards once they have been set.
Most importantly, it would represent a slap in the face of the other building designers (architects, mechanical engineers, etc.) who have been trying very hard to get us to work together. This “we know better” attitude is dangerous, and is the very reason that others are already trying to “do it for us and impose their ideas on our practice”. If ASCE wants to effectively manage sustainability then we need to extend our arms to all of the building design team and start learning what the others need and how we can support their efforts. Trying to siphon off of USGBC’s hard work for our own glory is not my idea of a good long-term strategy.
Obviously ASCE’s Sustainability Task Force did not consult me before they made their decision, but here is what my advice would have been:
- Look to support other initiatives that have already achieved success (LEED, Energy Star, etc.) rather than beginning a separate certification program. Put all of your effort into supporting those programs and finding a way to create synergy.
- All members of ASCE’s Sustainability Task Force should have achieved LEED AP status by now. LEED AP’s all learn a common language and use that to communicate their goals effectively. Klotz himself has a real chance to be a leader by acquiring LEED AP+ status, showing that he is serious about the process.
- ASCE needs to define what metric they are using to determine sustainability: CO2 emissions, energy use, money saved? I don’t see the ASCE organization achieving internal consensus anytime soon, just look at the comments on the blog page. Few engineers even believe the IPCC statements about anthropogenic CO2 emissions. It will be an uphill battle to say the least.
- ASCE should plug into the LEED program by determing baseline material needs for different building types similar to the energy baseline models used in the EA sections of the LEED programs. This would provide the most effective way for engineers to determine if they are truly creating sustainable designs or overbuilding all of their structures.
- Start an open dialogue about conflict of interests in the construction industry. Should an individual engineer be able to receive pens, pencils, and other marketing packages from material suppliers that might influence their decisions? Should an engineer be allowed to work for the ACI, AISC, or any organization that makes money from the amount of materials sold? Engineers are not so different from other professionals in this regard, and AMA is addressing this issue right now.
- Start asking professionals who are not civil engineers: “how can I support your efforts?”
Let me finish by saying I think that ASCE took a very important position by including sustainability in their 1996 code of ethics (see my earlier post & post about this topic). While it is wishy-washy language that would never hold up in an ethics investigation, at least they were trying. You can see how difficult this was for them to accomplish by checking the NCSEA model code of ethics. It is very similar to those of ASCE except that every provision regarding sustainability is noticeably absent.
I have faced a little bit of criticism over my claims that investing money in the New Orleans levee system maybe wouldn’t have worked. Well, now the National Academy of Engineering seems to be insinuating that levees won’t work, no matter what we do.
There had been “undue optimism” about the ability of the protection systems to withstand the impact of a storm on the scale of Katrina.
“the risks of inundation and flooding never can be fully eliminated by protective structures, no matter how large or sturdy those structures may be”.
So, no matter how much money we contribute to levees or any structure, there is always the potential risk that a natural event will exceed our design. We can only minimize risk to the extent it is economically feasible and set up systems to mitigate the effects when disasters occur. I don’t think ASCE or any engineer should be promising that investing in our infrastructure will result in perfect designs or elimination of risk.
I posted a few weeks ago about how I disapproved of ASCE’s infrastructure report (here and here). I just wanted to clarify how I feel about it, now that I’ve had a while to ponder the situation. Basically I still disapprove. Without qualifications.
First off, I think it blurs the line between our role as protecting the public welfare and a new role of setting policy for political gain. To me it is similar to the issues that top military leaders must deal with. It is clear that you must have soldiers to fight wars. Getting their opinion on military matters is essential. But clearly, you can’t let the military decide which wars should be fought. Not only is that a question they can’t answer, it’s a question they don’t want to. It’s a conflict of interest.
In this democratic republic we call the United States of America, there is only one group that can set policy and that is the citizenry. We vote to elect leaders to represent our wishes; on the other hand ASCE has not been elected, appointed, or chosen to act in any representational capacity on this issue (other than by us clever engineers).
Because they have no official right to set policy in this matter, ASCE is acting as a lobbyist group. And what are they lobbying for? More money. They want the US public to spend more money on civil engineering projects. Who will this benefit? Well, that’s a complicated issue. If it results in “bridges to nowhere” then additional spending won’t benefit anyone but builders and engineers. Then 20 years down the road those unneeded bridges and roads will be “crumbling” and used to justify more spending. The ability for this report to be pushed in front of the public to proclaim how much we need more bridges and superhighways is another reason I hate it.
The final reason I just wish ASCE would quit this is because it makes an implicit appeal (sometimes explicit) that spending more on infrastructure projects will provide more safety for the public. This is downright dangerous. If the last report card from 2005 had somehow convinced lawmakers to invest USD$2Trillion into all these projects, could we have averted the most famous disasters since that time? Would Minnesota’s I-35W bridge still be up? Would the city of New Orleans have been spared? The answer is no. But I have still seen these issues used to justify additional infrastructure spending.
My opinion is that until ASCE can prove that not a single member will profit from its recommendations, ASCE should refrain from making these alarmist reports on infrastructure.
So the preliminary report is out, and ASCE has graded our infrastructure at a “D” level again. Of course, this is a more a D- than a straight D. Apparently, the infrastructure system is dangerously close to outright failure. I disagree with this assessment, and even the idea of making the assessment, as noted in my previous post. But what are some other engineers saying? I love reading some of the comments on the ASCE Govt. Relations official blog….
David on 28 Jan 2009 at 6:00 pm
Every time ASCE updates their “Report Card,” I shrink in embarrassment for being a member of this organization. What an outrageous exercise! Couched in the language of an academic grading scheme, our ASCE leaders wildly shoot from the hip with purely political motives. They say our infrastructure is falling apart — The Sky is FALLING, they cry. This false alarm has no bearing in reality. Our water supply is a D-? Serving 100’s of millions, our US water supply has an outstanding record of public health. When one ponders the outbreaks of disease in our East Coast cities during the 1800s that resulted from poor drinking water quality, one realizes that modern civil engineers have made magnificent contributions to public health. Whether it is worth an “A” or a “B” I would not care to argue, but to give our system a D- is to insult our own profession. Furthermore, I would argue, that our ASCE Report Card undermines a critical plank of our professional platform, that is, Integrity. Civil engineers are to be professionals of integrity. Our leaders show little integrity in publishing this shabby, unscientific, alarmist, fear-mongering report.
Jay on 28 Jan 2009 at 7:16 pm
This report card is interesting, and may in fact be accurate reflection of our nation’s infrastructure. My question is where are the details? This report card should be the summation of some 1,000 page report that contains details on weakness, flaws, and failings of specific pieces of infrastructure.
Without more details, people are going to accuse you of scaremongering. Afterall, your members would be the most direct beneficiaries of a trillion dollar investment. Personally, I think your report is probably more accurate as opposed to less, but if you can’t back it up with detailed data and very specific priorities you can’t reasonably expect to get funded. And that would be a terrible thing.
The full report won’t be ready for a few more weeks/months. But they desperately needed something to have ready that will impact current debate on the topic in Congress. Maybe we should remind them of their obligation to “issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.” Personally, I can’t understand how these letter grade assessments could be considered objective. What is going on here?
Actually, I find the CBS news article a useful read. A summary from Carnegie Mellon University’s Engineering and Public Policy professor Granger Morgan:
But just because the federal government is handing out lots of money and society’s physical backbone needs plenty of repairs, that doesn’t automatically mean the government should spend most of its dollars on things such as new roads and power plants, Morgan said. Often, building newer roads doesn’t fix congestion, yet building better public transit would pay off more, he said. And spending on energy efficiency more than physical power plants makes sense, he added.
One really needs to make these choices on a bit of solid engineering economics as opposed to emotion and rhetoric,” Morgan said. “We’ve got an enormous pent-up need. The only message is: `Let’s be careful to the extent that we can in the manner we spend the money.
Since ASCE is so hell-bent on muddying the waters when it comes to infrastructure design/construction and the economy, here is a good article from Time magazine that has some opinions on that too.
And finally, here’s a press release from the National Association of Realtors (yes, even they have an opinion on the infrastructure issue). They have polled ~1,000 people and have concluded that most people support fixing what we got rather than building new stuff. I concur.
NOTE: this post reflects my own personal opinions and not the opinions of ASCE or anyone else.
The American Society of Civil Engineers is a large organization that represents most civil/structural/water resources/etc. engineers in the US. This organization advises state boards on licensure policies, sets educational guidelines, and lobbies for engineering activities. In their own words: “ASCE‘s mission is to provide essential value to our members, their careers, our partners and the public by developing leadership, advancing technology, advocating lifelong learning and promoting the profession.”
ASCE does a great job on educational and professional development, and they do add a necessary voice in the public forum. They are leaders in the quest for transparency in the design and construction fields, helping ACET distribute their new Ethicana movie. The goal of this venture is to remove fraud, bribery, and corruption from the construction industry around the world. It is a noble goal, but I believe ASCE must first come to terms with its own conflict of interest before instructing the world how to act.
2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure
Every four years or so, ASCE releases its “Report Card” which sums up the entire state of all infrastructure in the US in one convenient letter grade. This year apparently the situation is so dire that ASCE is releasing their report early. The most recent report card (2005) gave our collective infrastructure a grade of “D”. My advice to ASCE (though it won’t be followed) is to drop this report immediately and to end this silly process altogether. Here are my reasons why:
- Representing the entire infrastructure of the United States with a single metric makes no sense. Maybe it would be possible to compare each state of the US, or maybe each infrastructure category, but trying to give an overall national grade letter is inane.
- It reduces trust and confidence in the nation’s infrastructure. By using the words “failing” and “crumbling” ASCE is deliberately misleading the public. Very few bridges, buildings, or utilities fail in the US, even during extreme events. Even though there were a few high profile disasters since 2005, ASCE’s policies will not correct this. The New Orleans levees and the Minnesota bridge failed because of design errors, not maintenance or lack of spending. If ASCE is serious about reducing design errors, then the only solution is criminal prosecution of negligent design.
- This intention of this report is clearly a conflict of interest. ASCE is basically lobbying the US government to spend more taxpayer money on infrastructure. As designers of public works projects, ASCE members and their clients and partners are likely to benefit monetarily from any new projects. Sometimes substantially. ASCE members are not allowed to do anything that will cause the public to lose faith in their actions, and are not to make misleading statements. Why should our parent organization be free to jeopardize our trustworthiness and abandon the ethical standards that bind us together as engineers?
- The new release date was scheduled so that the report would have an impact on the new “economic stimulus” packages that congress and the federal government will be debating. Basically, the report will be used by lobbyists to petition congress for new construction projects, and ASCE will encourage it because of economic benefits. This is unwise. The state of the economy is no business of ASCE. ASCE is composed of technical specialists, not economists.
- It is already known that our current “American way of life” is unsustainable. Road-building leads to urban sprawl, but the new ASCE policy wants to address “congestion”. Building new projects harms the environment and uses a lot of resources, but ASCE does not shy away from promising sustainable development and environmental policies.
Rather than clamoring for more money and attention, ASCE should be arguing for smarter policies, and nothing else.