My personal journey from Physics to Petroleum Engineering to Climate Change and Sustainability can seem one of radical conversion, of an almost revolutionary change in perception or beliefs. Yet while the development has radical consequences for everyday life, it takes no adjustment of the moral compass. All that is required is an improved understanding of the complex and ever changing world we live in.
From Physics to Engineering is a simple step from academia to implementation, from study to action, from calculating to building, from pencil to spanner. Petroleum Engineering (and Drilling Engineering, where I started), in the 1990's was merely an exciting form of engineering for someone who enjoyed travel, challenges, and seeing results of one's effort. The unwritten understanding supporting this step is thus: engineering of itself is not good or evil. An engineer designs and builds for a purpose, and is constrained by regulations and boundary conditions: follow the Rules and don't break the Law. Rules are there to protect the company's profit, Laws exist to ensure people and our environment are safeguarded against rogues, and there's plenty of both around. Laws and Regulations are made by governments, and when necessary they can ask for assistance from whomever they choose. Governments are clever enough to look for experts in the technical field in question, and are of course aware of any potential bias of these experts.
Or so it seemed.
It turns out that the government is more and more advised by companies, and less and less by independent academics. This is partly because companies often do not demand payment for their advice (can alarm bells be heard?), and also because independent academics have become few and far between now that governments globally have drastically reduced funding to universities in favour of "externally funded research". This seemingly small change radically overturns the entire premise of engineering, environmentalism, academia, and the availability of independent advice on anything. In fact, it turns centuries of practical precedent firmly on its backside.
This is where engineering becomes optionally evil. Not because engineers become evil, but because the remit of engineers has slowly changed from "working within the rules" to "deciding which rules cannot be worked with", upon which engineering management instructs lawyers, lobbyists and corporate strategists to change the offending rules. And while the practice itself may be defensible -"corporate engineers are the experts so should assist the government"- the principle is unethical, immoral and entirely indefensible, as laws and regulations exist specifically to protect people and environment from conflicting interests.
This insight into engineering changes the game: not that engineering itself has become evil, but that it is no longer straightforward to do engineering ethically because the boundary conditions which safeguard ethics no longer exist; we've entered Dr. Frankenstein's world. Now, to be ethical, engineers must make their own (ethical) boundary conditions which will conflict with the accepted regulations, and typically also with the corporate profit strategy (the rules) which by definition lacks ethical input. It also spoils the fun of engineering: "being clever within the boundary conditions" is not nearly as much fun if you have to make the boundary conditions yourself first, and it gets worse when you're then evaluated against non-ethical conditions instead of the ones you worked to.
This insight throws up the juncture where a re-evaluation of one's industry and employer is called for, and a small insight into Climate Change is all it takes to stop exploring, constructing, and operating for the companies which subvert scientific information streams, intentionally putting the world's beautiful environment at risk, for nothing more than their personal bonuses and extravagant pensions. No, it is not just oil companies, and no, oil companies converting to gas are not exempt by any means. It is the activities performed between the UN summit of 1989 where Climate Change was rightly exposed as a clear present danger (30 years after initial evidence became public) and the IPCC was formed, and now, 27 years on, global emissions have doubled and the climate crisis brought forward by nearly a century, from 100 years to a mere 15 years. Industry management is arguing the case that "change is too difficult": even though it was possible to double emissions in 27 years, it is not possible to halve them in 30 years, they say.
Not even to save the earth.
As engineers, we know we can do better than this. Give an engineer the right boundary conditions (for example: zero emissions) and they will find solutions, in years rather than decades. It is management that does not want change, yet it blames a lack of engineering capability. Since we all know what engineers can achieve in times of war, and since the Climate Crisis is a more lethal and damaging crisis than all wars in the history of the earth added together, perhaps we should get management out of the conversation, make some proper rules (e.g. zero emissions by 2050), and change the energy system before it is too late.
Enough academic insights, enough corporate interference, enough political stagnation; time to act is now.