As engineers, you have a greater ability to affect the future of the planet than almost anyone else. In particular, the decisions you make as you start your careers will have a disproportionate impact on what the world is like in 2100.
Here are the things you should work on, for the next 80 years, that I think will make the biggest difference:
- Nuclear energy
- Transportation without fossil fuels
- CO₂ sequestration
- Alternatives to meat
- Global education
- Global child welfare
- Infrastructure for migration
Let me explain where that list comes from.
First and most importantly, we need carbon-free energy, a lot of it, and soon. With abundant energy, almost every other problem is solvable, including food and desalinated water. Without it, almost every other problem is impossible.
Solar, wind, and hydropower will help, but nuclear energy is the only technology that can scale up enough, soon enough, to substantially reduce carbon emissions while meeting growing global demand.
With large scale deployment of nuclear power, it is feasible for global electricity production to be carbon neutral by 2050 or sooner. And most energy use, including heat, agriculture, industry, and transportation, could be electrified by that time. Long-range shipping and air transport will probably still require fossil fuels, which is why we also need to develop carbon capture and sequestration.
Global production of meat is a major consumer of energy, food, and water, and a major emitter of greenhouse gasses. Developing alternatives to meat can have a huge impact on climate, especially if they are widely available before meat consumption increases in large developing countries.
World population is expected to peak in 2100 at 9 to 11 billion people. If the peak is closer to 9 than 11, all of our problems will be 20% easier. Fortunately, there are things we can do to help that happen, and even more fortunately, they are good things.
The difference between 9 and 11 depends mostly on what happens in Africa during the next 30 years. Most of the rest of the world has already made the “demographic transition”, that is, the transition from high fertility (5 or more children per woman) to low fertility (at or below replacement rate).
The primary factor that drives the demographic transition is childhood survival; increasing childhood survival leads to lower fertility. Counterintuitively, the best way to limit global population is to protect children from malnutrition, disease, and violence. Other factors that contribute to lower fertility are education and economic opportunity, especially for women.
Regardless of what we do in the next 50 years, we will have to deal with the effects of climate change, and a substantial part of that work will be good old fashioned civil engineering. In particular, we need infrastructure like sea walls to protect people and property from natural disasters. And we need a new infrastructure of migration, including the ability to relocate large numbers of people in the short term, after an emergency, and in the long term, when current population centers are no longer viable.
Finally, and maybe most controversially, I think we will need geoengineering. This is a terrible and dangerous idea for a lot of reasons, but I think it is unavoidable, not least because many countries will have the capability to act unilaterally. It is wise to start experiments now to learn as much as we can, as long as possible before any single actor takes the initiative.
When we think about climate change, we gravitate to individual behavior and political activism. These activities are appealing because they provide opportunities for immediate action and a feeling of control. But they are not the best tools you have.
Reducing your carbon footprint is a great idea, but if that’s all you do, it will have negligible effect.
And political activism is great: you should vote, make sure your representatives know what you think, and take to the streets if you have to. But these activities have diminishing returns. Writing 100 letters to your representative is not much better than one, and you can’t be on strike all the time.
If you focus on activism and your personal footprint, you are neglecting what I think is your greatest tool for impact: choosing how you spend 40 hours a week for the next 80 years of your life.
As an early-career engineer, you have more ability than almost anyone else to change the world. If you use that power well, you will help us get through the 21st Century with a habitable planet and a high quality of life for the people on it.