MODIS-generated ocean chlorophyll-a map.

Corporate values lead engineers to deny industrial climate disruption

MODIS-generated ocean chlorophyll-a map.

MODIS-generated ocean chlorophyll-a map.

Part Four of a series

Industrial climate disruption – the disruption of the global climate as a result of human activity, especially our industrial consumption of fossil fuels – is more or less settled scientific fact. In order for industrial climate disruption to be incorrect, over a century of well-established science would have to be overturned. In addition, the operational principles of innumerable technologies derived from that well-established science would also have to be rethought. Some of the technologies that are derived from the same sciences that are responsible for the scientific certainty about industrial climate disruption include semiconductors, CCD-based cameras, microwave ovens, chlorophyll-measuring satellite cameras, nuclear energy, every model of thermal radiation ever performed, LED and fluorescent lighting, lasers, and nearly every modern communications system, just for starters.

While industrial climate disruption presents a clear threat to the libertarian values identified by the Iyer et al study discussed in Part One of this series, the threat to engineers is less obvious but no less real. As we learned in Part Two, engineers often come to value what their corporate employers value, namely short-term profits. Industrial climate disruption challenges the primacy of short-term profits and, as a result, engineers are also highly motivated to reject the reality of industrial climate disruption.

Industrial climate disruption threatens corporate profits

Engineers take on many of the values of the corporations where they work day in and day out. As a result, engineers reasonably conclude that what’s good for the company is also good for the engineer. By extension, what’s bad for the company is also bad for the engineer, and there is little doubt that industrial climate disruption will be bad for corporations that design, manufacture, and sell products, at least in the short term. It’s tough to get people to accept something that threatens their jobs, and that’s why so many engineers deny industrial climate disruption.

Corporations naturally value profits – without them the corporation will eventually fail and shut down. As we learned in Part Two, corporations who want to make more money prefer the certainty of cost cutting to the uncertainty and risk of raising prices. In addition, investors in the corporation tend to keep the company focused on short term return-on-investment (ROI) in the form of dividend payments and perpetually increasing stock value.

When we look at how industrial climate disruption is likely to affect corporations, it’s pretty clear that corporations will be forced by regulators and/or legislators and might be pushed by investors and customers to absorb substantial new costs in order to mitigate and adapt to industrial climate disruption. Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions could well require new regulations or taxes and certainly will require that the price of energy increase, all of which would directly affect corporate profits. There are also compliance costs that corporations have to pay in order to hire new employees and train current employees in how to conform to any new industrial climate disruption-related regulations.

Corporations will also have to adapt to increasing energy prices, especially the higher costs of transportation fuel. The offshoring of production that happened during the 1990s and 2000s was predicated upon cheap bunker fuel for containers ships and diesel for shipping products from ports across the country. Without cheap fuel, corporations will need to “onshore” the very production they offshored over the last 20 years, paying significant one-time costs in the process.

In addition, customers and certain types of investors (such as state pension plans who value long-term stability more than short-term ROI) are also likely to push companies to take on and track their emissions as a component of a larger corporate social responsibility (CSR) program. While this will be no big deal for the many corporations that already have CSR in place today, it will be a significant headache to those companies who don’t have CSR in their corporate DNA or that have been actively resisting calls for CSR. Adding CSR to their corporate plan could add significant costs and would involve limitations on the company’s behavior.

any corporations and a few entire industries would face lower profits and many unhappy investors if they have to comply with new regulations, pay new taxes, and impose restrictions on their own behavior as a response to industrial climate disruption. As we saw in Part Two, all of these factors that increase the cost of doing business result in additional cost-cutting pressure placed on the shoulders of engineers.

To paraphrase the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition: Regulations are bad for business. Taxes are bad for business. Restricting your own behavior is bad for business.

It’s no wonder then that engineers come to regard industrial climate disruption, which will absolutely be bad in the short term for most businesses, as something to be rejected. After all, it’s hard to get a man to accept something when his job depends on him not accepting it.

An example: engineers’ motivated arguments regarding natural climate variation

One of the more common arguments against the industrial causes of climate disruption is that the Earth’s climate has been varying naturally for billions of years, so the climate disruption that we’re experiencing must be a natural variation. This is a strong argument for engineers who are by their very nature resistant to change, used to being the expert on things, and who rely heavily on historical knowledge and personal experience.

Engineers who look at industrial climate disruption see the modern changes in temperature as played out against a backdrop of hundreds of millions of years of geologic history. They know that climate has varied wildly over that period and that those variations could not have been driven by human activity since humanity only started emitting significant amounts of greenhouse gases in the last few hundred years. So engineers look at industrial climate disruption and see something that is far more likely driven by some alternate natural source (such as the sun, another common argument against industrial climate disruption).

This argument is reasonable to a point. In engineering, if something behaved one way in the past, it’s a reasonable starting assumption to believe that it will behave the same way again. That’s the foundation of engineering experience, after all, and it’s entirely appropriate. The problem is that confirmation bias sends too many engineers off looking for alternate natural sources of the observed global temperature increases. What engineers should be doing instead is asking the following question: What’s different this time from the last time this happened?

In the case of industrial climate disruption, the answer to that question is “one hell of a lot.” There wasn’t a human civilization pumping gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere every year as it burned carbon-based fuels that have been slowly sequestered underground over the course of several hundred million years, for starters. There wasn’t six billion people that need to be fed and have their concentrated wastes processed either. Depending on how far back you look, the Earth might have been just coming out of an ice age, the continents might not have been in the same configuration they are today, or the sun might have been shining several percent less energy down onto the Earth’s surface.

But if engineers accept this, then that means they’re accepting that their own experience is wrong, or at least in need of some serious updating. And it means that their job might be at risk as their employer cuts jobs or drives them to work even longer hours for the same pay in order to increase efficiency and cut costs. None of those things are exactly pleasant for an engineer to consider. It’s so much easier for an engineer to simply deny that industrial climate disruption is a problem and then find reasons in support of that conclusion.

Engineers who have let their fear of losing their job send them off tilting at climate science windmills will be very hard to bring back to reality. The reason for this is simple – most engineers really don’t like being wrong. They’re used to being the experts to whom everyone looks for the correct answer. And they’re used to having people listen to them and take their advice, even on areas that are only tangentially related to . As a result, engineers who also deny industrial climate disruption will not want to admit that they had failed to do the necessary mathematical due-diligence because of their own personal biases.

There are a significant number of engineers among the ranks of industrial climate disruption deniers not because of some shared ideology among all engineers, but rather because many engineers share a common fear that industrial climate disruption will cost them their jobs. And it’s not an unreasonable fear – certain industries and types of corporations are going to be seriously affected by the various mitigation and adaptation strategies that are imposed upon them by regulators, politicians, insurance companies, and even some investors. If industrial climate disruption is merely a minor threat, and if enough people can be convinced of that fact, then it’s better for the engineer himself over the short run.

The problem is that the longer we wait to start mitigating and adapting to industrial climate disruption, the more it will cost and the more likely it is that the engineer loses his job in the long run. But as we saw in Part Two, most companies and engineers don’t focus on the long run any more.

In Part Five we’ll investigate why libertarians and engineers should embrace industrial climate disruption and how they could become powerful allies instead of ideological opponents.

4 comments on “Corporate values lead engineers to deny industrial climate disruption

  1. Reblogged this on Facts & Other Fairy Tales and commented:
    Isn’t it time that we put human values over corporate values? I think our business schools need to revisit their fundamental philosophies, and people need to start making sensible decisions for the good of humanity, not profits.

  2. I think you don’t need even need to refer to concerns about corporate profits when asking why certain engineers deny the consensus AGW view. You could easily find a wind turbine engineer whose interest it was to agree with it.

    Rather, a more straightforward option is to look at how scientists vs. engineers think: how they are taught and what they do in their work. Scientists work like detectives. They take real world information, form scientific theories, and make predictions. Sometimes the information is uncertain or incomplete, but that doesn’t stop them from making theories (which best represent our current understanding). Theories improve over time.

    Engineers, on the other hand, work constructing things with precision and efficiency – using strictly defined rules, e.g. related to material strength. Most of those rules have been developed from scientific theories, but ultimately those rules aren’t questioned when the rules are applied to build anything. So engineers see a world of clean absolutes, with strict rules and certainties.

    And that puts them, ultimately, at odds with climate science because AGW theory remains highly uncertain and incomplete.

  3. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, December 23, 2012 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  4. Pingback: Libertarians and engineers should embrace industrial climate disruption, not deny it | Scholars and Rogues

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