White Paper 

University of Virginia Climate Change, Engineered Systems, and Society Group:

Ed Berger (Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering);

Andres Clarens (Civil and Environmental Engineering);

Kristina Hill (Landscape Architecture, Architecture);

Deborah G. Johnson (Science, Technology, and Society);

Michael Rodemeyer (Science, Technology, and Society);

Laura Sasso (Landscape Architecture, Architecture);

David Slutzky (Science, Technology, and Society).



I.  Climate Change Core


The starting place for any discussion of climate change is greenhouse gases (GHG). GHGs are naturally occurring components of the Earth’s atmosphere that block the escape of heat from the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere.  Greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone.  Human activities, such as the combustion of fossil fuels, are increasing the concentrations of GHGs, especially carbon dioxide.  Scientists believe that increasing levels of GHGs are already contributing to observed climate change and that projected increases will cause even more significant changes in the earth’s climate system by the end of the century.


The physical effects of higher concentrations of GHG include the following:

  • Increases in ocean temperatures;
  • Changes in the chemical composition of the ocean;
  • Sea-level rise;
  • Warmer regional climates and shifts in rainfall patterns;
  • Intensification of storm events;
  • More floods and droughts;
  • Increased risk of fire;
  • Changes in ecosystem composition and biodiversity.


These physical changes, in turn, have wide ranging (direct and indirect) effects on human lives and activities.  The social effects vary from region to region and broadly include intensification of water and food insecurities; challenges to the economic foundation of regions; new threats to human health; changes in quality of life.


Although the effects of climate change will be experienced differently in different places, the earth’s climate is effectively a life-sustaining global commons. Responses to climate change require a global perspective.


Adaptation and mitigation are strategies to respond to climate change.  Adaptation involves modifying human activity and the human-built environment to accommodate changes in climate or to accommodate to the effects of climate change.  Mitigation involves modifying human activity and the human-built environment in order to reduce the production of GHG. Adaptation and mitigation are intertwined and it is important to consider them together.   If climate changes quickly and significantly, the economic, ecological and social costs of adaptation will be extremely large, and even countries with significant resources are likely to face significant disruptions.  By reducing GHG emissions, mitigation activities will slow the rate of climate change.  Slowing the rate of climate change provides societies with more time to adapt, more time to plan, and the possibility of a series of modest changes over the longer period of time.  It creates the possibility of significantly changing human activities (including the human-built environment) to further reduce GHG emissions and avoid even more extreme climate change.


The relationship between adaptation and mitigation is complicated and sometimes in tension because of the global nature of the problem. Mitigation measures are often viewed as imposing regional economic costs, since they reduce the use of fossil fuels by making them more costly. In turn, making fossil fuel energy more costly is seen as reducing economic growth, at least in the short-term. While the costs of mitigation are therefore experienced regionally, the benefits of mitigation are global.  [From the atmosphere’s perspective, it doesn’t matter where a GHG reduction comes from.]  In addition, not all regions and nations will be affected equally by climate change, and regions and nations vary dramatically in their ability to minimize the social, economic, and ecological impacts of climate change through adaptation measures. Many regions of the world that have emitted the least amount of GHGs stand to suffer the greatest impacts of climate change and are the least able to afford adaptation measures.


II.  Engineered Systems


Engineered systems are implicated in the causes, threats, and responses (adaptation/mitigation) to climate change.  Engineered systems are combinations (ensembles) of artifacts, physical structures, and social organization.  Some engineered systems are relevant to climate change because of the GHG emissions that are required to produce or run them. Others are relevant because they are threatened by changes in temperature or rainfall or extreme weather conditions.


Understanding engineered systems, and, in particular, understanding the links between engineered systems is critical to meeting the challenges of climate change, be it through adaptation and/or mitigation.


Key engineered systems include:

  • Transportation Systems
  • Manufacturing Systems
  • Water Systems
  • Building Infrastructure (e.g. public, private, institutional)
  • Urban/Rural Public Services (e.g. emergency services, sanitation, health care, police)
  • Energy Systems
  • IT/Communications systems
  • Defense/military
  • Food Systems

Adaptation and mitigation strategies are needed for each type of engineered system.  However, little attention is being given to the links between engineered systems.  Changes in one will affect changes in another, and unless we understand the links, adaptation and mitigation could wreak havoc.


Salient and telling examples of the linkages between systems are:

Chesapeake Bay: focus on linkages of system in the Chesapeake Bay

–       Distributive justice issues related

–       Water right issues

–       Describe the territory

–       How does climate change affect the territory

–       What engineered systems?

EXAMPLE 1  (Panama Canal)

EXAMPLE 2  (Chesapeake Bay)


III. Society


Climate change and engineered systems have everything to do with human activity.  Climate change results from human activity and will have enormous social and economic effects on humans and human activity. Adaptation and mitigation will require and lead to changes in human activity.  Adaptation and mitigation will affect lifestyles, norms of behavior, modes of social organization, attitudes, and more.


Responding to climate change involves responding to the world as it is.  Because the pre-existing conditions include a uneven distribution of the benefits and burdens of technological and industrialized development, the poor are likely to be more vulnerable to the effects of climate change – unless special efforts are made.  Uneven distribution is likely to worsen because the voices of the poor are less likely to be heard and because the have-nots are in a weaker position to address the problems themselves. The differential impacts of climate change are less likely to occur if responses are global rather than regional. Issues of social justice will not be addressed unless they are given prominence in endeavors to address climate change.


IV. The UVa Approach: Focus on Uncertainty, Linkages, and Social Justice


As part of the Climate Change Educational Partnership, the UVa Group is focused on the nexus of climate change, engineered systems, and society.  Within this nexus, the UVa Group will focus its efforts on understanding the linkages between engineered systems, and we extend these linkages to include effects on the distribution of risk among social groups, i.e., social justice issues.


Successful strategies for addressing the challenges of climate change must come to grips with several different kinds of uncertainty.  Although the reality of climate change has been well-documented, a good deal of uncertainty remains as to the magnitude of the effects, the rate at which changes will occur, and how the effects will be distributed.  These uncertainties make it difficult to understand how any particular engineered system will be affected, and this, in turn, means uncertainty about the linkages between systems. For example, we don’t/can’t know how the coastal erosion systems of certain regions will be affected by climate change because we don’t know how changes in ocean temperature and composition will affect the coasts and because we don’t know how severe weather patterns will change in particular coastal region.  These uncertainties compound the problem of understanding how changes in coastal erosion systems will impact transportation, agriculture, energy, public services, as well as economic, cultural, and lifestyle patterns.


These forms of uncertainty combine further to uncertainty about the distribution of risk, and this takes us back to issues of social justice.  As explained earlier, unless issues of social justice are given prominence they will be ignored.  Moreover, issues of social justice cannot be separated from technological choices. The UVa Group will develop an understanding of linkages between systems that includes linkages to the distribution of benefits and burdens locally and globally.


Finally, and together with others in the CCEP, the UVa Group will work towards an understanding of the nexus of climate change, engineered systems, and society that will serve as the basis for educating engineers of the future.


V. Engineering Education: Resilient Engineering


The aim of the UVa Group is to develop an understanding of climate change, engineered systems, and society that can be used in engineering education, focusing on undergraduates, but including graduate students and active practitioners.  Engineers of today and tomorrow will increasingly encounter the challenges of climate change, and while traditional engineering education may serve them well, most educational programs do not adequately attend to the linkages between systems, the challenges of uncertainty, and the connections between engineering systems and society.


The UVa Group will develop three different case studies that delineate linkages.  The case studies will include a broad background paper and a set of materials focused on aspects of the case targeted for different fields of engineering but including interdisciplinary connections.  The materials will be tested in courses at UVa, at partnership institutions, and then at a broader set of universities (public and private).


In developing these materials, the UVa team will seek to articulate a vision of resilient engineering. Resilient engineers think, design, and build with an awareness of uncertainties.  They think, design, and build for adaptability.


VI. UVa Project Plan


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