“Engineering the Future”: climate change and infrastructure #EarthHour

Tonight, in a couple of hours, is Earth Hour. Last summer and autumn, I spent several days working with engineers, discussing climate change and its effects on national infrastructure. Now that the report has been published, “Engineering the Future”, I want to describe what I learned from the process. (These are my own views, prompted by the published paper; I have only described things which are in the public domain.)

My role was small – I and a colleague acted as rapporteurs, making notes and then pulling together early drafts for reports from a series of workshops. This was very much a recording exercise for me. It wasn’t my usual sort of gig, but it sounded (and was) interesting, and tied in with my interest in climate change.

There were four workshops, focused respectively on transport, information technology and communications, water and energy infrastructure, and then a final washup pulling it all together. The essential assumption – the basis of the workshops – was that climate change is a fact. Taking the UK climate projections as their starting point, what would the impact of the projected changes on our climate be in the long term? What would it mean for society? And how could society adapt its infrastructure to manage this change?

I was impressed by the calibre of the people attending the workshops; their views ranged from conservative to revolutionary, and there was active debate between them. They were all very engaged in thinking about the issues.

That said, little of what they discussed required much technical input: there were occasional detailed discussions – about the effect of increased atmospheric humidity on the attenuation of phone signals, for instance – but most of what was talked about flowed logically from the key assumptions without needing to know much about how the infrastructure actually works.

The big take-away lessons for me were

  • everything is connected. All our infrastructure systems need energy (mostly electricity); energy generation and distribution depends on computers and telecoms. Without either – and loss of one generally means loss of the other – and things grind to a halt pretty quickly
  • society is fragile. Analysis of the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans showed how quickly society can break down. In New Orleans, flooding meant a loss of electricity, so cash machines stopped working. People ran out of money. Even if they had money, shops’ payment and till systems depended on energy, so shops stopped selling anything. People quickly ran out of food, and resorted to looting just to find food. It didn’t take long for people to change their behaviour in order to survive
  • significantly increasing infrastructure resilience will cost money. Obvious, really: increasing resilience means building in excess capacity, the opposite of the drive in recent decades to improve efficiency
  • there is a lot that could be done today, sometimes simply and sometimes cheaply. For instance, if rainfall patterns change as the UK climate projections suggest, water may become scarce in some parts of the country. Technologies already exist for dramatically reducing water consumption, such as low-flow appliances
  • increasing resilience may mean devolving projects down to a local level, with networked rather than hierarchical systems
  • much if not all we would need to do is being done elsewhere in the world now – the changes needed are not necessarily ground breaking
  • the way we behave – and I guess that means the sum total of human behaviour (the world is a single, closed system) – will have to change radically over the next few years. This might be decades away, but it will change how we live. Social factors, not technological changes to our infrastructure, will determine whether we successfully adapt to climate change

Indeed, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly lucky and privileged to have grown up in western Europe in the second half of the 20th century: those technological developments that have now become part of the way we live – televisions; telephones; refrigeration; computers; clean, accessible water; constant availability of energy (as electricity, gas and petrol) – seem essential to us. It wouldn’t take much to lose a lot of them.

The world – at least, the developed world, my world – could be a very different place without always-available energy. Many of the things we currently do – driving when we feel like it, putting on air conditioning, maybe even switching on a light – could become expensive or even unsustainable. (I must emphasise that these are my thoughts, not the reports!) We live our lives based on expectations which are dependent on assumptions from the late 20th century, which are probably not appropriate to the mid 21st century.

There are broader implications for society, too. Migration from parts of the world where the impact of climate change could be more severe could strain our infrastructure further. Immigration is already a major political issue, but it could be bigger.

There is clear linkage without many of the things that Vinay Gupta and Dougald Hine talk about – the “collapsonomics” agenda. They describe a post-collapse society, exploring ways we might get by.

It could of course be a scary future.

Which leads me to my last observation. After all this talk of climate change over the last few years, the workshops’ discussions of infrastructure and its resilience, and others talking through ways in which we may survive – after all this, I don’t think my behaviour has changed much in the last couple of years. I live my life in ways which, in the future – near or far – won’t be sustainable. Even looking at Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, and the impact that they had on infrastructure (not least the capacity to generate energy), I doubt I will change my behaviour.

So do we need to wait for a major infrastructure failure here before we change our behaviour? Or will we just blame someone else – utility suppliers, engineers, government… – and wait for them to fix it?

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