@Beth: That's a really good point. Environmental sustainability is a complex subject. Reducing it to carbon footprint can be extremely misleading. That kind of thinking allows you to justify all kinds of wasteful and inefficient practices provided that you plant some trees somewhere.
I think the evidence for global warming is compelling, and as evo1 points out, so do the scientists who signed the editorial. Their argument is that the extent of global warming is less than some models have predicted, and the consequences may not be as dire.
(Their argument is also that those who disagree with them are like Stalinists and that they are motivated by greed and selfishness, so clearly there's more than enough demonization on both sides).
But eliminating waste and increasing efficiency are things which I think everyone can agree about. These things make sense economically, not just environmentally. And conservation of natural resources for future generations is something which has wide support across the political spectrum. Angry rhetoric sometimes distracts us from just how much common ground there really is.
I share your feeling about this, Tim. I was educated as an ME, too, and don't feel I'm in a position to know the answers to the mysteries of global warming. If I were forced to bet on it in Las Vegas, I'd probably go with the majority, which means I would bet that global warming is a problem. But by no means do I feel this is a closed discussion. And I'm offended by the demonization of those who don't agree with the majority. Those of us who haven't cemented a belief on one side or the other shouldn't be lumped in labeled categories such as "deniers" or "flat earthers." I dare say that many of the engineers who are still forming opinions on this subject have more scientific background than the people who are applying these labels. As I mentioned in the blog, I believe in the laws and principles of science that were taught to all engineers in school. AGW doesn't fall in that category.
Tim's point about demonization is one reason I've always been, quite frankly, scared to engage on global warming and to some extent on the biz regulation issues vis-a-vis our U.S. manufacturing debate earlier this week. These are highly charged subjects where political beliefs tend to make data-driven, objective discussions difficult. I am actually heartened by the mostly sober comments here and on the manufacturing thread (here). Maybe this means engineers, being engineers, can have more mature debates and discussions than some other groups.
@eb1225: I like your approach to mapping out the engineering problem as a means of mitigating risk. I agree with your assessment of it being a moral and prudent responsibility to factor it into design just as you would any other requirement or criteria. To ignore completely, would be dangerous disregard.
The key thing to understand here is that even this group of scientists and engineers who signed the editorial are not denying that anthropogenic global warming is occurring, they are simply saying that those who are directing the debate are overstating its significance. They, in fact, are tacitly agreeing that it IS occurring, just not as rapidly as many claim. And the conclusion they draw from that is that we may not need to panic over it, even though it is real and will cause some changes in the world around us.
I teach my students in Engineering Ethics that global warming should be thought of in terms of RISK. Codes of ethics for engineers direct engineers to keep risks to the public within acceptable limits. There are no certainties with global warming, but given the evidence that specialists in climate have amassed, it seems clear that the probability that our activities are heating the planet is quite high, certainly greater than 0.5. Further, given the evidence we have so far, the probability is high (again greater than 0.5) that an increase in the average global temperature of the lower atmosphere (and oceans and lakes) of even 2 or 3 degrees C compared to pre-industrial times will cause a great amount of harm overall. The risk (probability of harm multiplied by the magnitude of harm), then, posed by global warming is quite high even if nothing is certain. It is prudent and morally responsible to do something serious to reduce these risks. It is imprudent and morally irresonsible to do nothing.
If we do little or nothing to control the causes of global warming because it isn't certain that we are causing global warming or certain that it will cause a lot more harm than good, isn't it a little like a drunk who says it's OK for him to drive because it's not certain that he will get into an accident?
Instead of engaging in ad hominem arguments to demonize scientists who believe global warming is a serious problem ("global warming alarmists"?) or to demonize those who do not, we should focus on the evidence and the risks.
It is possible that man made items are causing global warming / climate change which is changing the world in which we live. It is also possible that it is not. As an ME, I am not really not in a learned enough position to know the answer. However, it is repulsive that one group of scientists would so agressively demonize a different group of scientists for offering a dissenting opinion. Hopefully, both sides can come to some sort of a middle ground, but I am not too optimistic.
Great, thought provoking post, Chuck. I am no where near schooled or well-enough read to profess any kind of substanitive opinion on the reality (or not) of global warming. I am human enough to see that there are gigantic weather pattern changes and an alarming uptick in natural disasters--all enough to warrant an on-going and thorough examination of the connection between these events and the possibility of global warning.
I recently spoke with some experts on a story for a different topic and the point was made that industry is so focused on the impact of carbon to the exclusion of other, very real and compelling environmental concerns, including design for disassembly. Recyclability and waste, they argued, might be a bigger environmental factor than carbon.
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