Lately, Waterloo has seen a huge spike in “innovation”-themed initiatives, including the launch of CIGI in 2002. CIGI, the Centre for International Governance Innovation, is an international think-tank of scholars who research ideas for global change. The CIGI building is at the intersection of Caroline and Erb St, less than a 15-minute walk from campus. It’s a hub of social, political and economic innovation, as well an impressive work of interior architecture with a gigantic atrium showcasing sustainable urban design.
However, the environmental design was not the reason for my visit on Thursday, January 14. CIGI offers a monthly signature lecture series open to the public. The lectures are short but engaging about any topic relating to governance. This past lecture was on a familiar topic: environmental change, but it skimmed over the doomsday climate change scenarios to focus instead on the consequences that could arise in international relations- remarkable consequences that have received much less attention. The lecturer, Cleo Paskal, addressed the topics of her new book Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map. The house was packed and you didn’t have to be a hardcore environmentalist to appreciate some of her points.
Here’s a problem for the civil engineers: Most human infrastructure is grafted to the natural environment assuming that the land will not change drastically, but environmental changes like coastal erosion and glacial melting are rendering many structures obsolete. In summer 2006, France had to power down 1/3 of its nuclear stations and import energy from the UK because of the lack of river water to cool nuclear reactor cores. Hydro dams are built based on historical weather data, which is no longer as reliable for modeling. The Thames Barrier in London is an engineering marvel, but it only protects against tidal flooding without considering there are many other types of flooding, like river swells and rising groundwater. What used to be crucial island military bases for nations around the world are disappearing underwater, leaving nations vulnerable. The list goes on, and it can seem scary.
It shouldn’t be so scary! When an engineer discovers a potential problem, the right approach is to examine it further and develop solutions. Right now, we aren’t doing enough of either. Other opinions are also essential. It’s easy to see how unexpected changes in infrastructure could trigger political fights and economic instability. Not only is our physical infrastructure not well-suited to environmental change, but our legal infrastructure also needs some rethinking. Paskal explained how international maritime boundaries are often based on coastal geography. Retreating coastlines and disappearing islands can lose a nation its rights to oil-drilling sites or crucial fishing waters. Water, fisheries and hydropower-sharing agreements are all at stake, unless laws are re-written to accommodate environmental change.
Some believe that we can engineer the climate to reverse the current changes, but that can be scarier than the changes themselves. We don’t have a thorough understanding of all of Earth’s systems, so purposely making large-scale changes to them could trigger countless unknown natural mechanisms. If things do go wrong, it’s also very hard to pinpoint responsibility. For example, seeding rainclouds in one region can cause drought in another, but who is to say that was the cloud-seeders directly caused the drought? Geological engineering may offer important short-term fixes like carbon capture, but there are many more problems which people need to think about. Environmental issues are not linear and do not have linear solutions.
Long-term systems thinking must be practiced by more engineers and policymakers. The more possibilities you consider in a design, the better. We hear this every day in our engineering courses, but it extends far beyond that, into the economic and legal sectors to name a few. Paskal said “This is not one problem, this is a million problems. And it requires a million solutions.” She wasn’t just talking about the natural health of the planet; she was talking about how all of the ways the world will change as the environment veers off its thus-far predictable path. Her opinion is just one of many, but it’s hard to deny that we should at least be planning farther ahead than we have been.
Last words offered by Paskal were, “Instead of trying to save the planet, start with affecting your domestic infrastructure, or even trying to understand it.” After the lecture and question period, Paskal made her PowerPoint presentation available to audience members, so if you would like a copy, send me an email (av2lee). You can also look up Cleo Paskal and Global Warring online, or even visit CIGI in person. This signature lecture series is just one of many things that CIGI offers to the community. It hosts a cinema series, noon lecture series, book launches and regular community events, most free and open to the public.
With two CIGI Chairs, Jennifer Clapp and Thomas Homer-Dixon, as professors in Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment, CIGI also has plenty of ties to campus. As engineers, we have a limited number of chances to take courses in social science, so it’s a great idea to take advantage of CIGI’s events (and free coffee- bring a mug). A full calendar is available on their website: www.cigionline.org. At this lecture there were already a few engineering leather jackets on the coat rack, so don’t be shy and give it a try.