Astrid Kauffman FIEAust CPEng outlines the responsibility of risk engineers to take action on climate change.
On New Year’s Day in 2020, as I stood in a smoke-filled hotel room in Canberra, railing at the televised parade of politicians sharing impotent and tone-deaf commentary on the disaster unfolding along the East Coast of Australia, an unsettling question popped into my head.
Could I put my hand on my heart and say I’d done everything I could have done about climate change? And then: If not, what was I going to do about it?
Black summer bushfires
We’d evacuated my parents’ home on the South Coast of NSW early the previous morning. At 4:30am, the car’s outside temperature gauge measured 36° thanks to radiant heat from the fire front.
I lost contact with my parents soon after when the mobile phone towers were burnt out. We didn’t know if they were okay or if their home was still standing.
There was so much devastation it was hard to find any information about their little corner of the world from the news.
Fortunately, my parents were safe and their home remained intact, but many on the South Coast of NSW and across Australia were not so lucky. Thirty-three people were killed directly and a further 450 died through effects of smoke inhalation, 24 million ha of land was burnt, thousands of homes were destroyed, and a hole formed in the ozone layer.
When the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements’ report was released in October 2020, the findings underlined how the disaster risk landscape had profoundly shifted due to climate change. This would likely not be our last experience of destruction of this magnitude, as recent severe fire seasons in mainland USA, Hawaii and Canada bear sobering testament.
But the question for me remained: As a safety risk engineering practitioner, what was I going to do about climate change?
The COVID-19 pandemic
Part of the answer crystallised for me on another project. Six months on from the bushfires, we found ourselves halfway through the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The early indication was that the disease was airborne and, although ignored by many, a growing pool of professionals were raising the importance of ventilation for COVID-19 control.
On a personal level, I was concerned about bringing it into my apartment building and posing a risk to my elderly neighbours.
I engaged with Engineers Australia to bring this conversation to a broader audience. They were receptive and asked me to investigate and analyse the issue. So I spoke to members and experts to try and understand the scope of the problem.
Reconciling points of view
What I discovered was half a dozen very different perspectives on a surprisingly broad issue, a scant but growing literature with many studies in progress, and a whole range of apparently coincidental issues in the building engineering ecosystem. Simple hypotheses about solutions (Just install HEPA filters! Open the windows!) were quickly dismissed.
The challenge, in the face of considerable complexity, uncertainty and dynamism, was how to synthesise this. After a few false starts, I finally found myself leaning on tools familiar to risk engineers everywhere. Identifying the context, analysing risk and consequences, considering interdependencies and systems level settings, looking at controls and residual risk, and identifying who was best placed to manage that residual.
The resulting paper, COVID19 Pandemic and HVAC: Problem and Opportunity Analysis, was published by Engineers Australia in October 2021. The Victoria Division went on to use this paper to engage with government, allied peak bodies, practitioners and academic institutions. We held and contributed to roundtables, summits and guidance material.
I learnt about how I could use skills I already had to work with experts to cut a path through complex problems, and saw opportunities to grow my practice.
These skills have translated well into my day job, including earlier this year enabling a specialist regulator to make sense of their dynamic and nuanced industry context, and identify opportunities for progress.
The climate change connection
As risk engineers, when we stand back and look at a problem in all its facets, cracks in the facade appear and the possibility of progress emerges. We are trained to see opportunities in the wider ecosystem to design interventions that go beyond the obvious technical solutions and create lasting change.
Reviewing and reflecting on the impacts of our actions, we learn more about the systems in our world and how they respond to local changes. We adjust our controls. This is risk engineering practice at its heart.
Philosopher Tim Morton describes wicked problems such as climate change, micro plastics and inequality as ‘hyperobjects’; profound in scale and stickiness, they are all around us, easy to detect but hard to wrap our minds around. The stickiness nags at you to help, but where to start?
What can be done?
In a recent article for Nature about dealing with climate grief, NASA climate change scientist Kimberley R Miner spoke to her colleague Dave Schimel, one of the scientists contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Nobel Prize-winning work.
In the article, he said that “the current generation of climate scientists needs to move on from education and advocacy to providing solutions for mitigation, adaptation and resilience”. Perhaps the answer is to find one interesting piece of the hyperobject, and start there.
I’m currently co-leading a project looking at how Engineers Australia can capture, codify and share profession-level lessons from disasters. It’s early days, but the potential for impact from the insights we’ve captured already is exciting.
There’s no shortage of complex questions waiting for curious, entrepreneurial and growth-minded risk engineers to pick up and examine. Assemble an interesting team of experts with diverse perspectives, use your facilitation skills to get those insights out on the table, and apply that treasure trove of risk engineering tools you have handy to crack them open. Then, identify the next tricky question.
This work is important and interesting, and I love it.
Come and hear from a stellar line-up of local and international speakers at the tenth biennial RISK conference, organised by the Risk Engineering Society. The theme this year is ‘Risk engineering for a resilient 2030’.