Global Warming

Op-ed: How Can Engineers Heed Pope Francis’ Challenge on Climate Change?

We must widen the focus of the engineering field to include the bigger picture, Catholic deans write.

Pope Francis addressed mayors at the Vatican on Tuesday during a two-day summit on climate change and slavery.

Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change speaks to the engineering profession, STEM leaders at Catholic colleges and universities say.

By Aug. 12, 2015 | 7:00 a.m. EDT+ Mor

The engineering deans of Catholic colleges and universities have been meeting annually for the past three years to discuss issues, challenges and trends unique to engineering education in Catholic institutions. As a group of STEM leaders across the country, we use our collective voice to publicly address matters that impact engineering education, or matters in which engineering education may have an impact. As such, our 22-member group feels called to respond to Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si'” encyclical on the environment and human ecology.

In a time of great unrest, uncertainty and disagreement over the reality of climate change, the encyclical forces all peoples and institutions, particularly Catholic ones, to examine if they are doing enough to address one of the gravest issues of our time. The encyclical presents us with a challenge and an opportunity as we consider the role of engineering education in an interdependent world.

[READ: Pope Francis Encyclical Calls on ‘All Humanity’ to Halt Global Warming]

 Catholic institutions have for generations focused on educating technically proficient and ethical engineers who employ technical remedies to solve problems. More recently we began emphasizing service to others, encouraging our students to put their skills to work around the corner and around the globe. These service projects have included rebuilding efforts after Superstorm Sandy, robots to remove unexploded ordnances in Cambodia, drinking water treatment in Bolivia and Haiti, rain gardens for inner city schools in the United States, renewable energy microgrids in the Congo, Uganda and Kenya, and the investigation of wind power as an alternative energy source in Moldova and Zambia. Such opportunities have provided these young men and women with a much broader view of the world than we can offer in the classroom. They see firsthand the problems being faced and discover the difference they can make as engineers.

Pope Francis’ encyclical emphasizes, however, that there is more to be done, that “solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality.” Today’s engineers must learn to see problems from an interdependent perspective that goes beyond “helping others” to consider what he has coined our “integral ecology.”

In what is a central issue related to education and engineering in particular, Pope Francis writes: “The specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult to see the larger picture. The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant.” An integral ecology calls for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis.

There is evidence of the progress our institutions have made toward embracing this notion of an integral ecology. We find it in graduate programs devoted to sustainable engineering and sustainable energy, and in courses and minors that require “whole systems thinking,” stressing system interdependencies and life-cycle impacts. It is the vision of student chapters of Engineers for a Sustainable World and Engineers Without Borders. Our college literature emphasizes a “commitment to the betterment of our global environment” and “working together to build a sustainable future.” Finally, it is manifest in the countless examples of how engineering students and faculty are developing the fundamental and applied technologies that impact people’s health, well-being and ability to thrive.

[READ: Why Pope Francis’ Climate Change Encyclical Is So Important]

These examples are important and encouraging, but as long as they remain “examples,” there still is work to be done. Until our understanding of this interdependent, interconnected world permeates our teaching and learning, we will not have reached our goal. And, it is a goal within reach. At the root of Catholic social teaching is a commitment to the common good, which includes valuing the sacredness of all creation and promoting ever increasing knowledge, love for and commitment to a sustainable world where all will flourish. That’s a message that resonates with our students and one that we can and must do a better job of weaving throughout everything we do.

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