Tackling America’s Infrastructure Requires a Commitment to Climate Studies

It’s been three weeks since the much discussed and analyzed decision by the United States’ to withdraw from the Paris Agreement — the seminal Agreement built upon the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change. Since then, over 1,200 U.S. mayors, governors, college presidents and business leaders have signaled their intent to honor the essence of the Paris Agreement, notably strengthening the global response to and capacity to deal with the threat of climate change.

It’s with this backdrop that I set out this week to Anchorage, Alaska to take part in the 2017 International Engineering Alliance (IEA) annual meeting. The IEA is an umbrella organization with members from 26 countries, which has established and now enforces seven multilateral agreements in engineering. These international agreements govern the recognition of engineering educational qualifications and professional competence. And as this year’s host, I can assure you that the IEA members are not meeting in Anchorage by chance. When planning for this conference, I could not think of a more appropriate a setting for the important work ahead at our meeting. And just as my flight began its descent upon the 49th state, I once again marveled at how perfectly it all had come together.

Alaska is a special place in many ways, not the least of which is its natural beauty. More than a third of the mineral-rich state is forested; a quarter is set aside as parks, refuges and wilderness; and its fisheries teem with salmon, halibut and shellfish. Half of the world’s glaciers are contained within the state. And while unique in its beauty and natural resources, it is not unique in the challenges it faces. Like many other states, and much of the developing world, it is faced with the need to build and rebuild aging infrastructure to support its people and its economy in the decades ahead. Much work will need to be done within Alaska’s borders, as in many parts of the world, to strengthen the airports, bridges, dams, energy grid, and roads and marine highways systems that recently earned it a C- score in the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. But how can we be sure that the necessary building will be done in such a way that the environment of a vital place like Alaska is respected and that the intent of the Paris Agreement is upheld?

As Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of ABET, I see the key role that my organization and bodies like the IEA can have in helping answer this question. At ABET, our focus is on the accreditation of associate, bachelor and master degree level programs in the disciplines of applied and natural science, computing and engineering and engineering technology. As we look across the globe at continuously evolving climate challenges, it will be to all of our advantage — and our great opportunity — to match those challenges with flexibility in our thinking and our approaches to overcoming them.

That does not mean we should ever waver in our commitment to setting the highest standards and holding programs to those standards. But it does mean we need to be thinking ahead. We need to be vigilant assessing the realities, like rising global temperatures and sea levels, which will confront our future scientists, programmers and engineers — students that presently occupy grade school desks in the U.S. and abroad. We must match the potential disruptive forces that climate change is bringing with disruptive approaches to how we prepare this professional cohort to create and solve big, evolving problems. That means taking a fresh look at how we bring together complementary elements like engineering and sustainable design into course work. It means encouraging and rewarding curricula innovations that will pioneer new sustainable methods to how we will use, re-use and re-purpose our natural resources. It’s going to require that we retire siloed views of disciplines and embrace the overlap that will push advances further, faster. It might even mean that we give students a chance sooner in order to accelerate learning and pull forward new solutions.

The challenges and the students who will meet them are on a collision course of destiny. It’s our job to make sure they are ready when they meet. Working with some of the finest colleges and universities in the world, we can help to ensure that these students have the education and tools they will need. Doing so will help ensure that a place like Alaska and the people that rely upon all that it offers don’t just survive, but thrive well into the future.

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.

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