Greenhush: the civil engineers who tread the boards for climate change

As COP26 comes to a close, a group of civil engineers came up with a novel way to raise awareness of climate change issues faced by the infrastructure industry.

  • Updated: 12 November, 2021
  • Author: Robert Thorniley-Walker, ICE Fellow and director at Structural & Civil Consultants

'To care or not to care?

That is the question.

Whether it is better to just carry on,

Ignoring the dire warning of climate scientists,

And by so doing wreck the lives of the young.

Or assess the consequences of our carbon emissions on others.'

What could go wrong with a play, written by an engineer, for engineers, set within an engineering ‘sustainablilty’ lecture, acted live online by engineers, and recorded for the ICE website?

The 20-minute enactment by ICE and IStructE North, with assistance from Friends of the Earth, was adapted from a chapter from my engineering novel, Greenhush. I was on the previous ICE Climate Task Force and spoke for engineers in Paris at COP21 2015, warning of the dangers to billions as we reach temperatures that IPCC 2021 now confirms are almost inevitable.

An engineer's play

Set in a university ‘sustainability’ lecture given in line with current advice and attitudes from both industry and professional institutions, the plot follows difficulties that arose once a knowledgeable student started asking questions.

The visiting lecturer from the concrete industry was quizzed on whether the ‘whole life’, net carbon footprint, would be relevant if emissions over the next few years meant that savings in the next century had no relevance.

A student, brought up in Syria, warned that young people in Britain would not be immune to famine and conflict, as temperatures rise and flooding would result in global food shortages and inevitable conflict.

Another student asked whether current engineering training will be relevant for a collapsing civilisation, and whether specifying products that will kill people could be justified.

Suggestions from the visiting lecturer that the students couldn’t simply shut down construction were brushed aside by the students, who could see the dangers to themselves and the planet from continually increasing temperatures.

Even the supervising academic lecturer was swayed to question the way that risk assessments were taught, as current assessments have steadfastly avoided the inclusion of carbon emissions. Acceptance that there is any risk that emissions might contribute to warming and loss of life would necessitate draconian mitigation measures.

Impact of the Greenhush play

After the play, an admission from a leading engineer that the dangers of current construction approaches needed to be tackled was taken as a major achievement. The impact of the play was also reflected by the recorded discussions and questions, which were particularly relevant to the climate issues.

An engineer in India asserted that climate change was already affecting his homeland. It was generating a rush to modernise, as it was hoped some stability could be maintained by transforming the infrastructure to match the West. He questioned whether development should be curtailed.

An engineer from Kenya had a very different perspective. She questioned why large steel road bridges were being designed for a country where most people walked rather than drove. She questioned attempts to provide computers for people who had no electricity.

The play and the subsequent discussions dared to cover critical issues that the construction industry in the UK and around the world must start to address – for the wellbeing of ourselves and the future of the young.

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