To me, being a climate action leader means putting sustainability at the forefront of all of my decisions and actions, both professionally and personally. This includes a continuous  assessment of gaps in my knowledge on this topic, and correspondingly, perpetual learning.

It includes, sometimes, having uncomfortable (or authentic and real) conversations when collaborating with others to develop and implement the solutions needed to address the predicament we are in, and the urgency we now face, regarding climate change and biodiversity loss. I say ‘uncomfortable’ because no one wants to be known as a Gloomy Gus. But climate change and biodiversity loss IS a gloomy, difficult, and emotional topic, yet it is essential for us as engineers to cooperate and collaborate with others in order to address the issues and come up with the required solutions. Therefore, we need to be able to discuss it.

“Climate change and biodiversity loss are no longer just about the science. It has become a social phenomenon”

However, conversations about climate change and biodiversity loss are no longer just about the science. It has become a social phenomenon. Everyone is on their own journey towards understanding that society’s collective impacts on our planet are no longer sustainable, with this journey resembling something similar to the stages of grief –– 1) Shock/Denial; 2) Anger; 3) Bargaining/Guilt; 4) Depression; 5) Acceptance/Hope. You cannot force others to progress through these stages any quicker than they are ready to. But you can support them, through empathetic engagement and conversation.

I don’t believe I will see ‘business as usual’ for the remainder of my career; nor within my lifetime. At least I hope I don’t, as, even though the momentous changes needed across all facets of our lives to address climate change and biodiversity loss are extremely daunting, these changes will be essential to maintain, or improve upon, our current standard of living and enjoyment, which is all underpinned by our natural world.

“With new or complex problems, further diversity within the mix of stakeholders needs to be brought together”

Given this, the engineering profession is currently facing quite the challenge. No-one, regardless of their numbers of years’ experience within the profession, has previous expertise with the magnitude and multitude of new mitigation and adaptation solutions that have yet to be developed to fully combat climate change and biodiversity loss. But, all professional engineers do have the expertise to solve problems, through the creative application of science, mathematics and engineering fundamentals –– a foundation of engineering competency. When the problems being tackled are new or complex, further diversity within the mix of stakeholders needs to be brought together to cooperate and collaborate in developing such solutions, including other disciplines and technical specialities, and those bringing a variety of differing view-points.

It is because of this that I seek out multi-disciplinary and diverse collaborative project teams when making my career choices today; and I will continue to do so into the future. This will not only keep me continually learning, and therefore challenged and interested in my work, but it will increase the likelihood that I’m contributing my engineering skill-set and work efforts to solving problems that precipitate a more sustainable future.

“Within the ocean-based industry sector, improvements have evolved alongside an increase in diversity”

Over my 20-year career, predominantly working within the ocean-based industry sector, substantial improvements have occurred regarding how sustainability and life-cycle environmental aspects are incorporated within business decisions. I do not believe it is uncorrelated that these improvements have evolved alongside an increase in diversity within the many different stakeholders involved, both within the sector itself and those involved in the environmental standard-setting at a global, regional, and national level. But there is definitely still room to diversify further, learn more, and continually improve.

My latest ‘work’ challenge is as a PhD researcher, evaluating environmental outcomes of differing decommissioning options for end-of-life ocean infrastructure, such as offshore oil and gas platforms and pipelines. To be able to comprehensively address this topic I need to gather knowledge from –– just to name a few of the disciplines –– the marine and social sciences, ocean engineering, and marine and environmental law. So even though my PhD is a solo project, I will still be collaborating with a diverse team of stakeholders in order to identify a holistic and sustainable solution that addresses my research scope.

I hope that, in sharing some of my thoughts on this topic, I have helped other engineers realise that we can, as a profession, be climate and sustainability action leaders. We may be just a small cog in the whole machine, but we can still make a difference, all working together towards a sustainable future.

      About the Author

Sarah Watson is a marine environmental risk and sustainability specialist. She holds a Master of Public and International Law (specialising in international environment and ocean law), and is currently a PhD researcher on decommissioning offshore infrastructure. She is a signatory to Australian Engineers Declare.

Australian Engineers Declare a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency