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The problem(s) with techno-optimism, part 2

This is a continuation of the previous post with a similar title. Please start there before reading this, or it will not make a lot of sense!


A) Green Energy Technology! Don’t get me wrong- we absolutely need innovation, creativity, and open-mindedness to face the future that growth capitalism has forged. However it is paramount that when trying to envision a way to mitigate the climate emergency, that we take the time to thoughtfully consider what is physically possible, by reviewing the empirical evidence. All renewable energy technologies and geoengineering scenarios especially, have some serious side effects. Solar and wind both require land or ocean area on which to build, taking space away from already fragile ecosystems. Scaling up would also require massive expansion of mining for metals and limited rare-earth materials, which comes with large environmental impacts (and climate justice issues). Ecologists estimate that even at present rates of global material use, we are overshooting sustainable levels by 82%. Nuclear power, moral arguments aside, is very expensive to build, requires mining, waste is a big problem, and it cannot be scaled up past ~ 1 terawatt (today’s economy requires 14 TW). Even hydrogen as a fuel substitute is produced using energy made from the burning of fossil fuels (99% of production).


It is also important to note that even without these drawbacks, the likelihood that any of these technologies could be adopted and implemented at the scale necessary to reduce CO2 emissions in time to avoid climate tipping points is very low. Nuclear power plants take 5-7 years to build on average. We need to at least halve global CO2 emissions in 7.5 years, at the latest. Just for a 50/50 chance at “Net-zero” by 2050, which is still not sufficient.


B) Geoengineering! The most commonly discussed type of geoengineering is carbon-capture and storage (CCS), a technology in its infancy but depended upon in the latest IPCC report scenarios. In theory, it could reduce CO2 emissions from a single power plant by 80% to 90%. However, it also could increase a plant's energy requirements by anywhere from 10% to 40%, and the overall cost of generating energy from 25% to 125%. That cost, presently $100 to $1000 US per ton CO2 , would of course be passed on to the consumer, and there is no market incentive to implement it anyway. Even experts in the field admit that the technology is not likely to scale-up in time to avoid the worst consequences of climate breakdown. Another anecdote: One CCS plant can remove 1 million tons of CO2 per year. There are approximately 40 CCS plants worldwide. Global CO2 emissions in 2021 were 40 billion tons. Bio-energy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is the same idea, but uses crops on land or primary producers in the ocean. It has the same issues as CCS, but with the added downside of competing for land and ocean space with agriculture and already faltering ecosystems.


Other forms of geoengineering, such as solar radiation management which involves simulating the cooling effect of an ash-type volcanic eruption by injecting a million tons of sulfur dioxide each year into the atmosphere. But, the effects would be temporary and unevenly distributed. Sulfur dioxide settles out of the atmosphere within a year or two, so it would have to be constantly re-applied. It is essentially ‘masking’ climate damage, and harm to other planetary systems such as ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, etc. would continue and possibly accelerate. A fun anecdote: The last time the world’s air was filled with so many particles was after Mount Tambora erupted in Indonesia in 1815. This led to a year of endless winter in some parts of the world. In the US, one writer observed: “The very face of nature seemed to be shrouded in a deathlike gloom.” That sounds like a world I’d want to live in.


Another issue with geoengineering in general is that it raises serious international policy issues- getting countries to agree on what should be done and when, and who does it, while not working for everyone and in some cases harming people. This type of climate intervention can also be carried out by a non-state entity, such as an arrogant billionare……..we are literally talking about Dr. Evil-type weather manipulation here.


Speaking of which, we could just colonize Mars, right? Don’t laugh- almost every time I give a public presentation, someone asks this question. I have difficulty understanding the motivation behind such an endeavour. Are people really that concerned about the continuation of the human species? Or are they just concerned about preserving themselves? Logistically, who would decide who could go? Would you personally, want to leave your home, your family, everything that you have ever known, for a life inside an artificial living environment controlled by one or two guys who OWN IT? All of this is beside the point, which is that the climate and ecological emergencies will cause the suffering and death of billions of humans and other living things, before our eyes. It is already happening.


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Perhaps naively, I replied to Mr. Techno-optimism just in case he was open to learning new things about the climate and ecological emergencies (I’m an educator. I can’t help it). My reply was met with more angry, whining vitriol, justified with ‘Greta hasn’t offered any solutions. You haven’t offered any solutions. I did!!!’ The subtitle to Thunberg’s new Climate Book is, by the way: “The Facts and The Solutions”. What Mr. T-O meant was that we didn’t offer any technological solutions that would ‘solve’ everything perfectly and neatly and make us appear really really smart, like him. Because what ‘solutions’ are there, except technological?! One very elegant one, now that you ask. As Jason Hickel writes:


“The single most important intervention is the one that so far no government has been willing to touch: cap fossil fuel use and scale it down, on a binding annual schedule, until the industry is mostly dismantled by the middle of the century. That’s it. This is the only fail-safe way to stop climate breakdown. If we want real action, this should be at the very top of our agenda.”


Although I dislike the term, the ‘solution’ to our present multiple, overlapping crises is to acknowledge that the economic and political systems that got us here cannot get us out. Building a new way of organizing ourselves on the planet requires innovation, imagination, creativity, and courage. It requires letting go of old ways of measuring personal, political, and economic success (this includes boasting about wiz-bang tech solutions on twitter while belittling respected activists). It requires acknowledging the damage that wealthy countries and individuals have done to less advantaged ones, and sharing the spoils so that we can live within the biophysical limits of Earth. Technology absolutely must be part of this fossil-fuel-free future -we need to transition to entirely renewable energy as soon as possible, and use much, much less of it in rich nations. But technology is only part of the solution, it must be pursued carefully, and it will not work within a system of constant economic growth. This sums it up well, I think:


“We have forgotten or ignored that our planet is already a technological marvel – the only life-support system that we know of in the universe.” -Jonathan Watts

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