The Race Against Climate Change: Why Technology Is Probably Our Only Hope

The Race Against Climate Change: Why Technology Is Probably Our Only Hope

Part of the abstract for the research paper ‘The Role of Short-Termism and Uncertainty Avoidance in Organizational Inaction on Climate Change: A Multi-Level Framework’, co-authored by Natalie Slawinski, Jonatan Pinske, Timo Busch and Subhabrata Bobby Banerjee reads as follows:

“The concepts of short-termism and uncertainty avoidance from research in psychology, sociology, and organization theory can explain the phenomenon of organizational inaction on climate change. Antecedents related to short-termism and uncertainty avoidance reinforce one another at three levels—individual, organizational, and institutional—and result in organizational inaction on climate change”.

From politics, to civil society and big business, the empirical evidence of short-termism in collective human motivation is blindingly apparent. However, so deeply does it appear ingrained in our group culture that recognising it, and its often profoundly damaging consequences, does not appear enough of a catalyst for meaningful change.

We’ve been aware of the effects of C02 emissions on our Earth’s climate for decades now. Over the past couple of decades, scientific evidence has dismissed lingering doubts that the global warming pattern we see unfolding is the result of ‘natural climate cycles’. Yes, there remain climate change ‘deniers’ who refute that evidence. But barely a single respected scientific voice, or any research, now supports that position. In 2016, the authors of seven climate consensus studies co-authored a new paper that sought to definitely settle the case for scientifically backed climate change denial. The 2 conclusions of ‘Consensus on Consensus’ by Cook et al. were:

1) Depending on exactly how you measure the expert consensus, it’s somewhere between 90% and 100% that agree humans are responsible for climate change, with most of our studies finding 97% consensus among publishing climate scientists.

2) The greater the climate expertise among those surveyed, the higher the consensus on human-caused global warming.

The official international target for climate change avoidance is to keep average global temperatures below a maximum rise of 1.5C. That’s the level of warming believed to give small island states and low-lying territories a ‘fighting chance’ of avoiding being submerged by rising sea levels as the polar caps melt. The target used to be 2%. It was recently reduced by half a degree Celsius because the IPCC was able to convince government policy makers that the difference will mean:

  • 10 million fewer people lose their homes to rising sea levels.
  • 2 million sq. km permafrost will be saved at the poles.
  • 50% reduction in the number of people internationally who suffer from acute water scarcity.
  • 1 per 100 years average limit on the summers during which there is no sea ice in the Arctic Circle.
  • 50% reduction in the number of species losing half their current geographical range as the result of climate change altering ecosystems.

But despite the talk and commitments, C02 emissions levels continue to rise. Despite all of the talk around ‘clean’ and ‘renewable’ energy sources, the world still derives 80% of its energy needs from fossil fuels, or hydrocarbons to give the more scientific term. That’s the same overall percentage as 10 or 20 years ago. It’s remained stable despite the rapid growth in the share renewables contribute to the energy mix in developed economies because the developing world is using more and more energy. And the developing world can’t afford to invest in pouring billions into promoting and developing renewables as an alternative to burning fossil fuels.

An even bigger problem is that 80% is now, in real terms, a lot more C02 than it was 20 years ago. The world emits 40% more C02 than it did in 2000 says data from the International Energy Agency and other major reports concur that have been released in the last year concur.

Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

The graphic above, put together by the IPCC, shows that to be sure of avoiding catastrophic climate change that exceeds 1.5C by the end of the century, we will have to reduce our net C02 emissions to zero. Much less than that and the fate of the planet as we know it is sealed.

Human history demonstrates incredibly clearly that government policy, especially government policy that requires tight international consensus and strict cooperation, has never resulted in change that has alleviated major threats to humanity. The Bubonic Plague, polio, TB and the other diseases that ravish human populations left unchecked were largely wiped out in the developed world because of advancements in medical science and sanitation systems engineering. The huge leaps forward in agricultural output that have hugely reduced famine and hunger over recent decades also owes little to nothing to government policy and is also the fruit of science and engineering.

Of course, there is an argument that government support, financial and political, and the kind of modern secular society protected by governments in the developed world provide the environment that allows science to flourish.

There is some merit to that argument. But the fact remains, history should amply demonstrate to us that it is not government policy that will be the catalyst to the level of C02 emissions reduction that will enable the government policy target of 1.5C to be met. No democratically elected government will push laws that could reduce C02 emissions drastically enough to reach the necessary levels that will suitably slow then reverse global warming. And even if they did their parliamentary opposition would thwart them if they could.

Why? The kind of sudden change necessary would devastate economies. Sure, managed correctly no one would starve or even necessarily suffer particularly in terms of having their basic needs met. But they wouldn’t be able to buy that 36-inch TV or upgrade their smartphone. That would seem a pretty reasonable trade off. Collectively take the decision as the human race to strip our materialism back for a few decades and recalibrate our environment, averting a global disaster that could ultimately lead to our extinction.

It’s not even the fault of governments and politicians. It’s our fault. The voters would revolt. Because humans, despite our worldview being exactly the opposite, have been proven to be irrational. We are all driven by irrational desires and internal narratives and not the kind of long term rationality that would mean short term trade-offs for a better future. We won’t give up our consumerism and social one-upmanship to save future generations or even possibly ourselves (if we happen to live on low-lying land) from climate catastrophe 30,40 or 50 years from now. Even if, in the event, most of us might actually find out we enjoy a more basic lifestyle for a while, particularly if everyone else has been forced into the same boat.

So, like famine and pestilence before it, science and the latest technology in the world is probably our only realistic shot at salvation from the rising tide (literally) of human-induced climate change.

How Will Technology Counter Climate Change?

On the Future, a recent book authored by Lord Rees, the former president of the UK scientific academy, the Royal Society, outlines 4 practical strategy priorities by which science, technology and engineering can combat climate change by wiping out harmful emissions. They are:

  • CFCs. Improvements in electricity storage technology.
  • An increase in low-carbon energy generation.
  • Improved energy consumption efficiency.
  • Greater focus on the most environmentally harmful non-C02 emissions – methane, black carbon and

Saying that impactful climate change action will not be, practically, come as a result of government policy is not the same as saying government policy can’t do a huge amount to support it. The kind of R&D that will bring about the four key technology changes above can be accelerated by government support, particularly financial support. But for technologies to be adopted on a mass scale they also need to be commercially viable.

A controversial example is the much criticised Chinese ‘dumping’ of cheap solar panels. Chinese subsidies for local solar panel producers warped the market and put a lot of Western manufacturers out of business. But the end result was a huge drop in the price of solar panels that allowed the technology to achieve, under the right circumstances, grid parity with fossil fuels.

Without suggesting the same approach, the example shows that money talks when it comes to accelerating the commercial traction of new technologies. A huge international investment fund for low-carbon technologies that international governments, and private capital, contribute to would be a good start. The investments made by the $100 billion Vision Fund are super charging technology advancements in areas from VR to driverless cars. There is no reason to believe a similar, or bigger, cash injection into the kind of technologies that could help us meet global climate change targets wouldn’t have the same effect.

Of course, there is no guarantee huge investment in emissions-battling technology will churn out the end products that will mean we can reduce our net C02 emissions to zero in a little over 30 years. Or even get close enough to do just enough. But it looks like the best option on the table. Electric vehicles look like they will replace the internal combustion engine within the next 10 to 20 years. If that electricity is able to be produced emission free, that’s already a strong start. Lab-grown meat replacing farm-reared meat would be another massive stride forward. Both look like they have a decent shot at becoming a reality thanks to science and technology. Now we just need to pick up the pace elsewhere.

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