4TU.CEE is co-organisor of the SEFI2020 conference. This blog is part of the SEFI2020 blog series.

Blog by Laura Menschaart, researcher at TU Delft

Prof. Van der Steenhoven, director general of the KNMI (Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute) set out to tell us how climate change and the COVID-19 crisis are related, and what we can learn from this as educators.

A time-consuming debate

After viewing satellite images of waning Antarctica and escalating graphs on the increase of CO2 emission in the past decades, prof. Van der Steenhoven stresses that whenever climate change is discussed, it is hard not to invoke political opinions and emotions. In teaching, too, more often than not this leads to a lively debate and lengthy discussions among students. Although interesting and engaging, this is generally time-consuming.

This illustrates why it is important to separate science from political standpoints. With relatively simple facts, Van der Steenhoven proposes to us that climate change is our doing and cannot be explained by other (natural) factors, even if human beings were to be taken out of the equation. He elaborates on four commonly encountered criticisms to climate change – briefly recapped below – and systematically argues against them.

  1. Historical ignorance (‘the earth has seen much higher global average temperatures in the past’). Counterargument: see image: ‘CO2 history’.
  2. Hubris (‘mankind is unable to influence the composition of the atmosphere, it is too complex a system’). Counterargument: observable COVID-19 effects: humanity does influence the atmosphere.
  3. Fatalism (‘mankind is only fighting wars; it is naive to think we can do anything with 193 nations together’) Counterargument: the Montreal protocol of 1989, phasing out emission on substances that deplete the ozone layer, is a worldwide intervention.
  4. Time is over (‘there is not enough time left to mitigate the effects of climate change’). Counterargument: All calculations come down to roughly the same number: 30 years left to take (drastic) measures.

Van der Steenhoven seems to especially take pleasure in the discussion that follows. While discussing the fascinating idea of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere – in addition to reducing CO2 output – his posture relaxes and his speech and gestures accelerate. “There is always a trade-off”, prof. Van der Steenhoven explains. For example, removing CO2 from the atmosphere by creating genetically modified algae might be a beneficial idea, “…but these algae, which are absorbing CO2, and that are sunk to the bottom of the sea, will have no negative effects? We should at least ask that question. This is the trade-off.” In my opinion, the idea of trade-off can also be relevant in educating engineers, as it helps to critically evaluate the consequences of every action.

Climate and COVID-19

Dealing with questions like these is of course not just the responsibility of engineers, but of policy makers, politicians, and of society in general. Students in engineering should be trained to work together in interdisciplinary teams that try to oversee the many possible consequences and effects that new measures may have. In a way, this is what the key-note session was about: the observed effects on the climate by the global measures taken in order to combat COVID-19. And these effects are captivating and colossal (see image below).

Fall in greenhouse gas emissions in China; normal situation vs. COVID-19 lockdown

Teaching and societal relevance

This captivation is an important tool in teaching our engineers, according to prof. Van der Steenhoven. He experiences that emphasizing the social relevance of engineering fuels students’ energy and engagement. “Speed of learning increases because these are also social and political issues’’. Not only speed of learning, but also incorporating real world problems and contexts is important in our education. While lots of the curriculum can be very abstract, these examples help master the transfer of these theoretical concepts to the real world. So even though a time consuming, emotionally loaded, political discussion is waiting to happen, this might be for the best in the long run, both for the climate and the quality of our education.

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