In This Issue
Spring Bridge Issue on Engineering and Climate Change
March 15, 2020 Volume 50 Issue 1
The seven articles in this issue cannot cover all engineering-related aspects of climate change, but they highlight several areas of concern.

President's Perspective: Climate Change - A Call to Arms for the NAE

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

“He that lives upon hope will die fasting.”
– Benjamin Franklin

As I visited different regions of the country to hold town hall meetings with NAE members over the past six months, I heard a recurring message: The NAE must be more involved and proactive in addressing the impact of the Earth’s changing climate, which is occurring on a human rather than geologic time scale. Members argued that engineers should address both mitigation of and adaptation to the changing climate, and work with scientists who are focusing on causes and predictions.

The fact that the global climate is changing in response to human causes, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, is undeniable based on the scientific evidence (NAS 2014). The important questions are (1) What are the most promising technical routes to mitigation of the changes? and (2) How can society adapt to the results of climate change?

This issue of The Bridge presents timely articles relevant to these questions, and joins a series on related topics.[1] Moreover, the National Academies are actively working to advance understanding of climate science and its intersection with many areas of science, engineering, and medicine and providing guidance on options for limiting the magnitude of climate change and adapting to its impacts.[2] We are also enhancing accessibility to our extensive body of work, for use by decision makers and the public to inform their decisions.

Climate change is an example of unintended consequences of technology. Carbon-based fuels drove the Industrial Revolution, enabled food production to support global population growth, and in many ways improved health and quality of life. But the effect of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide and methane, on the atmosphere was not anticipated. This example should be emblazoned in our memory to ensure that we consider potential negative consequences of new technologies and how to avoid or minimize them.

The challenge of addressing climate change should involve not only global-scale efforts, such as geoengineering, but also local experiments. A beautiful example of the latter is the carbon-free farm described by Jay Schmuecker (2019). Its energy needs are met solely by solar energy, which drives electrolysis cells to produce hydrogen for fuel and chemical feedstock, and uses the Haber-Bosch process to produce ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen for use as fertilizer and fuel. As the author admits, scale-up of the carbon-free farm is problematic, but at small scale it shows that a zero-carbon emission system is feasible. More such experiments are needed—for example, with renewable energy sources for electrical micro/nano grids (Shahidehpour et al. 2017; World Bank 2019).

The Benjamin Franklin quotation summarizes the situation: hoping for the best is not enough. Similarly, merely understanding the causes of climate change is not enough. Individuals, governments, industries, and universities must act. Effectively mitigating and adapting to climate change also requires attention to social and political dynamics.

The NAE is in a position to lead the way on technical strategies, and it is our duty to do so.

References

NAS [National Academy of Sciences]. 2014. Climate Change: Evidence and Causes. Joint publication with the Royal Society. Washington: National Academies Press.

Schmuecker J. 2019. The carbon-free farm. IEEE Spectrum 56(11):30–35.

Shahidehpour M, Li Z, Gong W, Bahramirad S, Lopata M. 2017. A hybrid ac/dc nanogrid. IEEE Electrification 5(2):36–46.

World Bank. 2019. Mini grids have potential to bring electricity to half a billion people, according to new World Bank study. Press release, Jun 25. Washington.
 

Follow-up on My Inaugural Column

I am very pleased by the number of responses to my column in the winter 2019 issue, in which I considered a concise definition of engineering. NAE members and other readers weighed in with thoughtful and in some cases novel ideas as well as competing arguments for specific words to be included (e.g., design, create, systems, processes,…). As I expected, the question defies an easy answer and will continue to generate exploration. No definition is uniquely correct, but developing one is a good process for our profession. The most important thing is for us to think about what engineering is in general terms so that we can readily offer a useful, accessible explanation in any situation.

John L. Anderson,
President, NAE

 


[1]Bridge issues on engineering for disaster resilience (summer 2019), infrastructure upgrades (summer 2018), and energy and the environment (summer 2015)

[2]  Climate at the National Academies, https://sites.nationalacademies.org/sites/climate/index. htm