Engineers play a vital role in equipping the world to address climate change, but they cannot do it alone.
That is why it is so important for the profession to hear from other sectors about the challenges they face in confronting and adapting to a future of new weather extremes.
The challenges and opportunities presented by cross-sector collaboration was the theme of a panel discussion at this week’s Engineers Australia’s Climate Smart Engineering conference, which was conducted digitally and in-person for the second year across Australia.
Chief Executive Officer of Engineering New Zealand Richard Templer urged engineers to look beyond the bounds of their own profession.
“Engineers are generally pretty good at collaborating with other disciplines. I’ve been involved in lots of design projects that have involved a range of different engineering disciplines,” he said.
“Ultimately, you’ve got to have something that works from a financial sense or business sense and environmental sense — or planning sense — as well as an engineering sense.”
One example of this approach, he said, involved New Zealand efforts to replace coal and gas with renewable forms of energy such as geothermal heat.
“That’s a collaboration between real estate agents and local government, the local Maori iwi group, the energy company, and the commercial businesses themselves — and, in particular, the accountants running the numbers and looking at the difference between using geothermal heat and using gas,” Templer explained.
“When all those disciplines got involved, the engineering solution became possible.”
Karen McWilliams, Business Reform Leader at Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand agreed that no single profession has the answers for an issue like climate change.
“We’re going to need to get better and smarter at working together,” she said. “How will organisations implement — and how are they implementing — [Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures]? We are seeing a multidisciplinary approach to that. So we’re seeing climate scientists, accountants, governance, risk, legal and engineering professionals all coming together to produce disclosures along those lines.”
This is a space that provides opportunity for member groups such as Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand — or Engineers Australia.
“We’re all trying to create the resources for our members [and] some publications, and if we’re doing it separately, then it’s going to take us a lot longer,” McWilliams said.
“If we could actually leverage what we’re doing and work together, we can actually move a lot faster. I think we’ve got to stop seeing this as a competition between different professions and different organisations.”
Professor Cameron Holley of the University of New South Wales’s School of Law, Society and Criminology said the complexity and dynamism of the climate challenge is undoing people’s capacity to rely on the past in their decision-making — making deeper collaboration between professions ever more important.
“We have to get to know each other’s disciplines in order to create new knowledge and discover solutions that go beyond the scope of our single professions,” he said.
“We’re able to challenge each other’s orthodoxies, identify blind spots and areas that we haven’t been thinking about that are necessary, and we can also develop new knowledge, which can help professions — and indeed individuals — within those professions.”
That would require more than loose collaboration or working towards similar goals.
“I think we’re going to have to go much deeper, and look for opportunities for integrating professional perspectives, and to mutually work together in developing a shared understanding of the problem and the solutions to those problems,” he said.
Listening and learning
One opportunity Holley pointed to is the ability of professional bodies to work with the university sector, particularly by shaping curricula to enable change in the future.
“That reflection, I think, is probably based on my experience teaching law students in particular,” he said. “They’ve changed over the years in terms of the issues they care about, and what they want to learn about, and their ability to think through some of the more complex and challenging issues that have been thrown up by climate change.
“My sense is there’s more work that can be done for professional bodies to come together, and map the different curriculums that, say, engineers, accountants, and lawyers are taught, and think through the types of skills that are expected of future professionals.”
Those professionals should also take the opportunity to learn from one another — and the barrier to entry there is surprisingly low.
“Just talk to them,” Templer urged.
“Most organisations have people from other professions in them — so if you’re in an engineering firm, you’ll have people who are accountants, marketing people, you might have a general counsel or legal counsel on staff. Within your friend network, you may have people in these professions. Just have a conversation and involve them.”
Expanding professional perspective in this way, the panel heard, helps to avoid looking at climate responses through too narrow a lens.
“[There are] challenges with biodiversity and water, but I’d also echo some of the labour challenges, and certainly one of the big issues at the moment is the fact that a lot of solar panels, through the supply chains, are potentially tied up with issues around modern slavery and human rights abuses,” McWilliams said.
“Maybe we think about the world we want to live in in 2050, as well, and whilst we might want to be in a low-carbon world, we don’t want to be in a world where there are human rights abuses, [a world where] we don’t have the biodiversity that we have now.
“I think we have to ensure that we’re acting with a broader lens, even if our main focus is around climate action.”