Illustration redesigned by Devin Thorpe
Innovation will save us has been a theme of humanity’s history. No water? We’ll build a better aqueduct. Dead soil? We’ll sail to another island. It’s a strategy that has seen humanity through ice ages, wars, droughts, and stranger circumstances yet. No wonder people aren’t reacting more powerfully to climate change. They assume that scientists will devise a solution, and then responsible people somewhere will just take care of the problem.
It’s tempting to accept this solution at face value. After all, we have lives to live. Why not leave the problem up to someone who knows more about it? Plus, technology – shiny, exciting, miraculous technology – seems capable of anything at the moment. In a lifetime, we’ve gone from room-sized calculators to pocket-sized smartphones with more computing power than the entire Apollo 11 capsule. It seems bizarre that technology wouldn’t be able to solve climate change.
But by putting our faith in technology alone, we betray deep ignorance about the scale of this problem and how it came to be. Worse, we soothe ourselves with the idea that “someone else” will solve this. It’s not quite God will provide, but it’s close. Putting responsibility elsewhere damages the full understanding of the inevitable fact that human lifestyles will have to change if global warming is to be mitigated.
Very well, then. Personal changes are possible: eat less meat, drive fewer cars, take responsibility for every ton of carbon. This impulse is laudable and, probably, necessary. A world of beef-eaters really will drive methane levels as surely as a world of unmitigated natural gas leaks. But there are problems with mass behavior in a confused and confusing world. Absent marching orders, a crowd is more likely to mill ineffectually than to accomplish something useful, even if it can gather enough participants to make itself effective.
Our survival may depend upon understanding why we need both technology and people to save ourselves from this catastrophe – and why our desire to choose one could land us with worse problems than before.
Approach 1: The Inventors Will Save Us
One of the big problems with this approach is expense, not only the direct expense of these solutions – which is generally small – but the collateral price of the quick fix. Consider one example of geoengineering: albedo enhancement. This solution involves shooting an opaque chemical, usually sulfur dioxide, into the atmosphere to increase albedo, which is the amount of sun that the Earth reflects. While there have only been localized experiments so far, a planet-wide albedo program would require constant, ubiquitous sulfur injection. It would also cause acid rain and widespread respiratory distress. It is currently unclear what albedo enhancement would do to farms and ecosystems. These downsides notwithstanding, albedo enhancement is currently one of the only serious options for mitigating out-of-control global warming.
The direct cost of sulfur dispersers, which could be as low as $10 billion, would not address the remaining need to repair acidifying oceans and smoggy air already affected by excess atmospheric CO₂. In fact, this fast solution could lead to a false sense of security. Why stop burning carbon fuel if there’s a cheap, easy fix for global warming? If general changes weren’t implemented, we could find ourselves stuck with geoengineering like an addict with a drug. Stopping would mean instant catastrophe – and people would likely want it to stop. The health costs of inhaling sulfur aerosols may be serious, nevermind the cumulative psychological effect of a changing sky.
That’s not to say that geoengineering is off the table. With proper corollary action, this Band-Aid could buy us time to heal the world. But by itself, this solution is typical of innovative solutions to climate change: they tend to quickly address the one facet of the problem that the inventor considers most urgent at the expense of the problem’s other urgent facets. Carbon capture, iron fertilization, and engineered weathering all suffer from the same issue. Treating climate change like this is like running from a brush fire to brush fire with a hat full of water, putting out every individual blaze without addressing the growing conflagration of the forest. That’s why the price of technological solutions could be higher than current estimates predict. Without a holistic plan and total coordination, the problem could become worse despite some small victories.
Relying solely on technology also means trusting a relatively small group of people with the good of everybody. That’s a lot of pressure to place upon a handful of experts and review boards, the definition of a pyramid balanced on its point. The people considering these solutions may not have the professional infrastructure to save the world by themselves. Rapid financial beefing of mitigation technology could result in a rapid shift in economic structure that could itself lead to bigger problems down the road. Consider a world where the atmospheric sulfur business becomes as big and powerful as the oil and gas industry.
Then there’s the problem of adoption. If the tech that saves us is consumer-related, then we’ll find ourselves in the strange position of trusting the wealthy to save us with their buying habits. Solar panels and electric cars, for example, aren’t economically feasible for the average person. This leads us to the problem with the second approach.
Approach 2: People Need To Change
The average person is a nascent climate warrior. Polls have shown us that this is the case: most Americans now worry about climate change and believe that it will affect their life. This pain point has become a handle for eco-conscious consumerism, including a burgeoning and extremely profitable organic and green clean industry.
Unlike the technological approach, the idea of mass behavior change places the onus on the average joe for driving, eating meat, and buying petrochemical products. Giving up plastic straws becomes a point of righteous celebration as zero-waste heroes show off mason jars containing five years’ worth of trash. If we all gave up flying, carpooled electric, took public transportation, and opted to have one less kid, we’d be able to effect change through sheer weight of numbers. It’s as easy to make this claim as it is to pump a billion tons of sulfur into the stratosphere and leave it at that. The reality isn’t so simple.
Of course, the theory is sound. Consumers drive the market, so mass consumer behavior changes should be able to push the market toward green solutions. There’s even some evidence that this is already happening. People clamor for ugly produce and Kroger will carry it as soon as this year. Loop, a package-reduction project, is experimentally rolling out in New York City. Today, consumer climate action is a goofy-looking apple and a reusable Haagen-Daz pint. Tomorrow, maybe it’s a car-free intentional community.
That said, it’s notable that these efforts sometimes graze the mark. Ugly produce, for example, has not historically been wasted but has instead gone to canneries. This is one example of the flaws of a consumer-reliant solution. Buyers are collectively suggestible, eager to solve their problems and soothe their anxieties within the status quo. Greenwashing and manipulation are rampant in eco-consumerism, an economic subset that itself exists nested within and supported by a fossil-fuel heavy economy.
But aside from the fact that consumers can’t possibly stop investing in medical and transportation industries by buying more expensive artichokes, there’s the problem of the damage already done. All of the reusable straws in the world can’t change the fact that we’ll continue to experience increasingly violent weather events even if we cease all fossil fuel use today. It is noble, but ultimately ridiculous, to tilt against a hurricane with a bamboo toothbrush. It’s even more tragic to watch well-meaning people switch to a “green” market solution, like organic food, that actually makes the problem worse.
The mass behavior solution also depends heavily upon personal wealth. Solar roofs, electric cars, and zero-waste building materials are still fairly expensive. The people who can comfortably afford them are a small sector, and of that population, even fewer are aware and willing to make those investments.
Relegating climate action to the rich ascribes a certain amount of blame for the worsening of climate change to the poor and middle-class. If only those poor folks would prioritize solar panels. Why will they not insist upon hybrid cars? Green solutions are expensive solutions, and in an America where the middle class is slipping inexorably into the lower, there is often no time to worry about which native plants to plant in the non-existent garden. Expecting consumers to shoulder the burden of an entire country’s expensive green transition – and not placing relief valves for those who are already squeezed to within a penny of their income – is to alienate a majority whose cooperation will be critical to surviving climate change. For a primer on eco-alienation, see France’s Yellow Jacket protests.
Because despite the weaknesses inherent in trusting mass behavior change, mitigating further harm is where consumers could be very powerful. By insisting upon genuinely green alternatives and refusing to make harmful buying choices, the general population could tear down the base of the toxic economic and political structures that have caused so much harm to our planet. Their potential is dramatic…as long as they can all march in the same direction.
Coordination and the Role of Government
If our species is to make it through climate change we will need to marry these two approaches into a third: coordination. Without unity, the best case scenario is that climate change will continue to get worse at the same rate as it is doing now. At worst, the misguided efforts of our earnest population and over-zealous inventors will damage our chances even further.
Love them or hate them, the best prospects for uniting the will of the people and the brilliance of the inventors are governments. Political units with direction can gather experts from various fields and make a game plan based on data, balancing technological mitigation strategies in a long-term plan for total planetary repair. They can embark upon public relations campaigns, incentivize good environmental behavior for corporations and individuals, and jazz people up about the War on Carbon. Only they have the clout to force energy producers to go renewable or suffer consequences in the ten years we have left before we do irreparable damage to our only planet.
Unfortunately, change is not conducive to most re-election campaigns. Politicians also hate giving people bad news, and that may be the biggest threat to our way of life. Whether they’re trying to please voters or lobbyists, the people whose job it is to address systemic problems like climate change are generally refusing to do so in a manner timely enough to prevent the worst of projected warming.
In the end, politicians are likely to land on technological solutions because they’re cheap, quick, and offer an opportunity for heroic posturing – look how I beat climate change! – that real solutions can’t. Expect them to delay as long as possible, publically disbelieving the existence of this problem until the very moment they can take credit for defeating it. The next guy can deal with the fallout from the quick fix.
This may seem like a grim outlook. In fact, it is. If we want to avoid it, then average people, idealistic billionaires, and innovators alike must stop focusing on Teslas and start focusing on their elected officials. Until voters prioritize the climate as an electable issue, the future that we have to look forward to is unbalanced and disorganized, a three-legged race toward a receding goal.
Featured Header Image Source: science.howstuffworks