Conversations: Montalto on Climate

This month, the College of Engineering initiates a new series called Conversations, in which faculty will address topical, occasionally polemical issues from an engineer’s perspective. We hope Conversations will showcase not only CoE faculty member expertise but also the questions and controversies that drive them to seek engagement on a larger scale.

Logo for 'Conversations' series

In this inaugural column, we feature Dr. Franco Montalto, Associate Professor, Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering (CAEE). His research lies at the intersection of water resource and infrastructure decision-making, urban sustainability, and resilience science. Montalto was one of several representing Drexel University at the international 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) held last month in Katowice, Poland.

You participated in COP this year as you have in the past, including the historic Paris Agreement COP in 2015. How does this one compare?

I have found each COP to be unique both in terms of the focus of the negotiations and the general feeling among attendees. In 2015, the focus of the negotiations was on formulating an Agreement that could serve as the diplomatic basis for future greenhouse gas emissions of all nations. There was a general sense of optimism everywhere as high-level national leaders, including then-President Barack Obama, made statements signifying their recognition of the urgency of this diplomatic action.

The US presidential election occurred right in the middle of the 2016 COP in Marrakesh, spoiling the high that most attendees seemed to have after the diplomatic success of 2015. The 2016 COP negotiations emphasized the role of non-state actors, and I can remember then-Secretary of State John Kerry attempting to soothe us in an address in which he pointed to the decoupling of economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions as evidence that climate action was already underway with unstoppable momentum. Meanwhile, one of the NGO participants hosted a “Hug an American” event in recognition of the election’s shocking outcome.

In 2017, COP was held in Bonn, where non-state actors arrived en masse, especially from the US. Bonn was full of governors, mayors, business executives, many of whom participated in long panel discussions in the “We Are Still In” tent set up outside the official COP venue. I would say that the feeling in Bonn was one of cautious resistance; many left with the feeling that climate action was nearly inevitable.

This year, by contrast, an air of depression loomed over the Katowice meeting. Not only were we all breathing a thick pea soup of particulates thanks to the meeting’s location in the heart of Polish coal country, but IPCC reports released only weeks before underscored, in the most comprehensive and explicit terms yet, the severe implications that global temperature increases in excess of 1.5 C would have on people and biodiversity. On top of that, many of the countries that had been emerging as climate leaders now seemed to be struggling with domestic political changes and resistance by the fossil fuel industries. The Katowice negotiations focused on the hard work of developing a rulebook to accompany the diplomatic agreement that was signed in Paris, while also delving into the delicate topic of a “just transition.” What does it mean to reduce net global greenhouse gas emissions to zero? How does industry adapt? How do workers adapt?

Katowice was certainly the most sobering of all four COPs I attended. Fortunately, it ended in what is at least another diplomatic success, a rulebook that will help us measure greenhouse gas emissions and track climate financing between nations; and it will help the parties share technical know-how regarding mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. Whether the rulebook will help the parties actually curb emissions still remains to be seen.

These conferences and recent governmental reports paint a dire picture of climate health. Are you concerned about a “game over” scenario?

As a civil/environmental engineer, I am always working on challenging problems arising from the negative impacts anthropogenic activities have on land, air, water, or other natural resources. But in my career to date, I’ve never before felt that a “game over” endpoint was anywhere near the horizon. I always felt that “the struggle” would just continue indefinitely: new problems would be identified and then through collaboration and hard work we would, one by one, find solutions.

But my reaction to the recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels was that it effectively lays out what “game over” will look like, and when it will arrive if we do not act now. The report underscores that if we, as a global community, do not figure out how to get to “net zero” emissions well before mid-century, we can expect species extinctions, coastal flooding, wild fires, drought, and food shortages the likes of which are unprecedented in the modern era. I find this conclusion utterly terrifying and depressing. This said, I have decided to convert it into something of a compass: I’m using these feelings to re-align my professional and personal activities to address head-on what I consider one of the biggest challenges facing our generation.

What alarms you most about the IPCC assessment?

I worry that, collectively, we do not appreciate how radical a societal transformation will be necessary to get to “net zero” emissions within the time frame laid out by the IPCC. This transformation would be difficult enough if we were all living in a world of surplus. But poverty persists in US cities like Philadelphia, as it does in more extreme forms in both rural and urban regions all over the world. People and communities and nations need and want urgently to make changes that would improve their quality of life. The worrisome part is that we now know that the traditional development trajectories – the ones that enabled a high quality of life in countries like the US – are not the way forward.

Historically, economic development unsustainably expanded natural resource footprints, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and polluted the land, water, and air – outcomes that economists often call externalities. If we want to both develop and to avoid these negative outcomes, we find ourselves face-to-face with a very difficult problem. We want to encourage sustainable patterns of development – ones that avoid most of the greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and other negative social and environmental problems that accompanied historical waves of development.

Because our natural tendency is to want to replicate tried-and-true solutions, solving this multidimensional problem will require rapid disruptive creativity, substantiated by thorough technical studies, pilot projects, and tough negotiations between diverse stakeholders. We need new development and redevelopment paradigms that are both “net zero” and still feasible in this diverse and rapidly urbanizing world in great need of more climate finance and investment. This is no small challenge. It alarms me, but it also paints a clear picture of where I need to invest my intellectual energy.

How do you see your role as an engineer vis-a-vis climate change?

My perception is that many climate scientists feel that if they ally themselves with policy-makers, or otherwise get engaged in “on-the-ground” decisions about where and how people live and work, their science could be perceived as biased. Instead, they do their science and leave policy to the policy makers. Engineers, on the other hand, by definition are heavily involved in decisions regarding roads, power plants, buildings, and other forms of infrastructure. Not only are we trained to work “on-time” and “in-budget,” we are comfortable being involved in all kinds of design, siting, material sourcing and procurement, construction, operation, and maintenance decisions, all of which will need to be coordinated under the “net zero” agenda.

Canon 1 of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Code of Ethics requires that professional engineers “hold safety paramount” and that we “approve or seal only those design documents … which are determined to be safe for public health and welfare.” Moreover, the code states that “engineers who have knowledge or reason to believe that another person or firm may be in violation of the provisions of Canon 1 shall present such information to the proper authority ….” This past summer, ASCE released Policy Statement 360 – Impact of Climate Change, recognizing that “there is a growing need for engineers to incorporate future climate change into project design criteria …” and that “current engineering design standards, codes, regulations and associated laws that govern infrastructure are generally not structured to allow design adaptation to address climate change .…”

It is my belief that engineers are uniquely equipped with the knowledge to allow us to develop solutions to the climate crisis, in terms of both adaptation and mitigation, and this point was also made by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs (my former boss) in a recent piece in Project Syndicate. Where the impacts of climate change are unavoidable, it is up to us to speak up and to revise engineering standards and practices so as to reduce risks and vulnerability.

Not addressed by the ASCE Policy statement but equally if not more important in my mind is the engineer’s responsibility to design with mitigation in mind. How is the infrastructure we design not adding to global emissions? Is it through mainstreaming cradle-to-grave lifecycle assessments into our design activities? Is it through integration of natural elements that can sequester carbon into our site designs? Is it through policy initiatives that ultimately establish a tax on the carbon released by construction and use practices associated with different pieces of engineered infrastructure?

You describe yourself as an infrastructure engineer. How do you define that?

My professional “bread and butter” is in the field of water resource infrastructure, but my broader interest is in urban sustainability and resilience, and I use the former to promote the latter. When we as engineers design a piece of infrastructure, we are acutely aware of all the ways that it is actually part of a larger system. I believe that no piece of infrastructure is truly mono-functional. If you represent the city parks department and you are redesigning an existing park, you may be creating, enhancing, or restoring recreational opportunities, but you are also creating, enhancing, or restoring habitat. And if you grade the park appropriately, it could also become a flood mitigation system that receives runoff from the surrounding neighborhood during extreme rainfall events. And if you make sure there is sufficient open space in this new park, it could also become a gathering place for residents of nearby tall buildings during an earthquake. And if you plant the right species, you might also be able to entice pollinators to come back to the city, as well as, yes, sequester some carbon into the park’s biomass and soils.

Given the challenges that we face, I define today’s infrastructure engineer as someone who recognizes the dynamic interconnectedness of built, natural, and human systems, and who incorporates these considerations into design.

Can you provide a local example?

With funding from NOAA, an MS student, Joseph McGovern, and I are working with the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) to try to figure out how investments made to comply with clean water rules can simultaneously help the people of Camden to reduce flood risks, create jobs, acquire more recreational space, beautify post-industrial neighborhoods, provide shade, and grow their own food. We know that we can manage stormwater in big tanks and tunnels, but we also know that this approach solves potentially just one problem (e.g. water storage). In contrast, a network of custom-designed green spaces can manage stormwater while also providing co-benefits. Figuring out how to customize a decentralized network of stormwater capture green spaces to address community needs is a challenging problem, requiring significant and meaningful public engagement. But if you decide that you are going to do this (and CCMUA has made this commitment), you are actually helping the community to adapt to a wide range of uncertain and potentially problematic conditions.

Can you tell us about external climate groups you’re involved with?

Drexel is a core member of the Consortium for Climate Risks in the Urban Northeast (CCRUN), a NOAA-funded consortium of five universities that have been working together to evaluate and mitigate the risks that climate change poses on the urban northeast. We are currently in the second of two five-year grants (year eight to be precise) and much of my research, teaching, and service is now inextricably linked to CCRUN activities. In fact, even Camden is part of this effort.

Any other programs?

Recently, Drexel was selected to host the North American Hub of the Urban Climate Change Research Network (UCCRN), an international consortium of both researchers and city leaders who are focusing explicitly on the impacts of climate change on cities. There are about 1,000 UCCRN members the world over and a significant percentage of these are in North America. We have started building the Hub working in an executive committee composed of researchers from across our University.

Does the UCCRN project incorporate Drexel students?

We created – and we’re about to launch – a project database for UCCRN that would assist students in search of term papers, MS theses, or even doctoral dissertation topics to find real-world clients with whom to work. We want the Hub to serve almost like a matchmaker, helping students to do the work that cities so urgently need while also learning new skills that will help them to participate in the “net zero” adapted world. The time for theoretical homework assignments and term projects is over. There is a world full of real, pressing problems to solve: why not start while students are still in school? The initiative also syncs up nicely with Drexel’s emphasis on civic engagement and problem-based experiential learning.

Have you noticed changes in student commitment to the climate recently?

I’ve been generally dissatisfied with the level of activism that I see at Drexel (regarding climate change or anything else) for a long time. I don’t see a lot of students out there protesting or demanding changes of their national leaders, their city, the corporations that will eventually employ them, or even their professors. But there’s a reason for that. Drexel students are extremely hard-working. When they’re not taking classes, they are on co-op gleaning practical experiences, or just working to get themselves through college. These experiences make them very pragmatic, and if they don’t see climate action as necessary or important, they will not speak out.

I think if we want to see an increase in student interest in climate change, it is incumbent upon us as educators to show students its relevance to their professional future. For this reason, I incorporate climate change considerations into all the classes I teach. For example, when I cover tree canopy interception in Hydrology, I have the students compute how much less precipitation is attenuated in street trees during the larger events we will expect in the future, compared to the ones we have seen in the past. In my Urban Ecohydraulics class, I have the students simulate how much runoff is generated from watersheds under undeveloped, urbanized, greened, and climate change conditions. We pick a different watershed each year, and typically the students find that climate change reverses a fraction of the benefits that green infrastructure projects would otherwise bring to urbanized watersheds. As I write this, I’m teaching a class called Open Channel Flow. It’s a classical water resources class that teaches students how to do things like engineer channels so they won’t erode over time. In this class, I’m requiring the students to study how channels (this year in Grenada!) might evolve with rising sea levels at their downstream ends, and extreme flooding at their upstream ends. The feedback I get from this approach to teaching is that it’s a lot of work (grrr…) but also really interesting. Hopefully, this feedback means I am motivating students to appreciate the importance of climate change on water resource engineering, and by extension, other disciplines, inspiring them also to up their game in terms of overall climate activism.

Where should Drexel engineers apply their commitment and energy?

I have a very specific answer to that question, and my students will tell you that I talk about it in nearly all my classes. Engineers have traditionally been asked questions like how big the pipe should be, or how deep the foundation should go, but not whether the pipe or building should be built in the first place. Many traditional engineers, content with this technical role, have hunkered down with their graph paper and diligently answered these specific technical questions, leaving the higher-level design decisions to the architects, landscape architects, planners, and the like.

In my opinion, the time has come for engineers to assume a greater role in project visioning. While a whole bunch of professionals can recommend that we build “net zero” buildings and cities, engineers have a unique combination of quantitative/analytical skills and design training that allow us to accompany design alternatives with estimates of their embodied energy, material inputs, and environmental impacts so that these factors can be incorporated into high-level design decisions. Such skills are essential for all of those helping to shape our rapidly urbanizing world, while also seeking to limit vulnerability to new and uncertain climate risks, and to ratchet down emission to “net zero” in the span of only a few decades. In my view, function can no longer follow form. Form must be informed by function, and engineers are uniquely positioned to explain how.

In summary, I believe that engineers need to set their sights on being leaders and to apply all our energy toward the development of new sustainable forms of development that meet basic human needs, while reducing emissions, waste, and vulnerability.

You’re talking about expanding the way we teach engineering to bake this commitment in before students even pick up the slide rule.

The climate is changing. There is no doubt about that. The question for engineers is what to do about it, and I don’t think we are encouraging students to think critically about the various answers to that question as much as we should.

I believe that some faculty think that climate change is the domain of climate scientists—oceanographers and meteorologists … the kinds of people who run generalized circulation models, monitor ocean temperature, and measure atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. They think that as engineers, they are not qualified to talk about climate change in the classroom. I’d say that 10 years ago, this pretty much described me. There are also some faculty (yes, even here at Drexel) who don’t believe that climate change is real or caused by human activities, minimize its societal importance, and thus do not create classroom discussions and activities that emphasize its relationship to engineering practice.

We engineers are used to ingesting a wide range of facts. The fact that the climate is changing is no longer one that our discipline can afford to ignore – and I believe that we should emphasize this point to our students starting in freshman year. We don’t need to conduct atmospheric measurements to be qualified to discuss climate change in the classroom. Our unique role is to incorporate what the climate scientists are telling us about the future into engineering practice, while also seeking to minimize, project by project, building by building, the contribution that engineered systems are making to global emissions.

I know that none of this is easy. There’s no text book or manual of practice. The climate challenge is requiring all of us to think on our feet, to learn while doing, to do while learning, and to teach all of these skills to our students. We need radical transformation in society, but also in the classroom, and I want to be part of both of those processes.