In the 20 years I've been with Arup, I've worked...
I believe that engineers and environment professionals can help create a low-carbon built environment where climate change mitigation is ‘locked-in’, and where buildings and infrastructure are inherently resilient to a range of potential climatic futures. But we also need to fight against the fatalism that is creeping into people’s attitudes to climate change.
Public attitudes in the UK are changing in a way that is far from encouraging. According to a poll by Ipsos MORI undertaken for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, the percentage of the UK population that believes the benefits outweigh the risks associated with climate change has almost doubled over the past six years from 27% to 50%.
This comes as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finalises its Fifth Assessment Report. Its conclusion is clear: there are now ‘fewer uncertainties about the serious consequences of inaction’.
Recent extreme weather events have shown that current climatic conditions are challenging enough without the intensification that will inevitably result from global warming. However, peoples’ perceptions of the risks vary enormously – according to their perceived degree of exposure to hazards such as floods and droughts and their vulnerability to the impacts.
The great tragedy – and cruel irony – is that the richest quartile of the world’s population, which is responsible for the vast majority of carbon emissions, is far less vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate than the poorest quartile, whose lives are currently largely sustainable in carbon terms. Moreover, it is not our generation that will suffer most under more extreme climatic conditions, but future generations.
So considering this pressing moral dimension to climate change, is the public’s apparent rejection of international scientific consensus wishful thinking or just plain denial? One possible explanation is the ‘issue attention cycle’ identified by American academic Anthony Downs in the 1970s.
This theory maintains that public attention rarely remains sharply focused on any issue for very long – even if it involves a continuing problem of crucial importance to society. Central to the theory is that when people appreciate the true cost of making significant progress with resolving an issue – and the personal sacrifices involved – the initial enthusiasm for bold action rapidly wanes.
Many of us fully appreciate that our lifestyles are completely unsustainable but the alternatives are just too challenging to contemplate – hence a drift towards fatalism. Or even outright denial.
The fact that the term ‘sustainability’ has been largely supplanted by ‘resilience’ as the mot du jour perhaps reflects mainstream society’s acceptance that sustainability in carbon terms is just not realistically achievable and we therefore need to prepare ourselves for the inevitable consequences.
As the IPCC’s latest reporting round concludes – and further reinforces the realities of the impacts now facing us – engineering and environmental professionals will have a critical role in helping to break this cycle of fatalism. Through the way we design the built environment, we must help people make the changes they need to make to their lifestyles.