It shouldn’t be news to anyone reading this that human-caused climate change is an issue of great concern for many people. Like most of my generation I’ve been aware of this problem for a long time. I remember it being taught in school back in the late 80s. Until recently it hasn’t been much in the front of my mind. But now that I’m more aware of the serious and urgent climate and ecological crisis we’re all facing, I’ve been asking myself why I wasn’t so concerned before.
Partly I thought that governments had the problem in hand or would do shortly. Perhaps I assumed that the small gestures of lifestyle change myself and many of those around me made would help and make enough of a difference or that it would be a long time before there were serious consequences.
But I think I knew that current strategies were not going to be enough. Even once I’d seen graphs like those on the climatelevels.org dashboard I still wasn’t seriously concerned. There are probably a lot of reasons for this including the fact that the people around me weren’t panicking.
A big part of what I’ve found comforting, has been thinking that technology would solve the problem of climate change. I enjoy thinking about technology and science, so it’s easy for me to get enthusiastic about such things. That enthusiasm can sometimes distract me from the bigger picture and the hard questions about how much a piece of technology helps.
It seems like there is always some amazing technology just around the corner to solve climate change. For example, a lot of carbon dioxide is produced by electricity generation, so replacing this with cleaner alternatives is obviously part of the solution. Any day now a renewable form of energy would make burning fossil fuels unnecessary. If it’s not renewable energy it’s geoengineering – for example putting reflective particles in the upper atmosphere to cool the planet. If we only wait a few years it’ll be fixed.
The trouble is I’ve been thinking that for 30 years.
We’ve been told for a long time that nuclear fusion will become a practical source of energy in about ten years, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. One day we might be able to extract electricity from waste water, enough to make processing the water energy positive, but that’s still theoretical. Geothermal power has huge potential, even in parts of the world you might not expect, but requires huge investment and isn’t entirely clean. Reactors based on thorium sound clean, safe and though not renewable, the small quantities of thorium they need are abundant, but at the time of writing these reactors are not available yet.
What about wind and solar? They’re already working and don’t cause any pollution.
Wind power seems like a safe and clean way to get electricity until you realise that the turbine blades take a lot of energy to build, which means there’s a time before the net energy and CO2 invested is paid back. They have a limited lifespan and are difficult to recycle. Also the switches needed to operate them are insulated with SF6 gas which is far more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Inevitably some of it leaks.
Similarly, making a solar panel requires some rare earth metals and a lot of energy, and therefore CO2, for the mining, running and production. Again recycling at the end of life is problematic. Both those sources of power are intermittent – the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, so you need huge over capacity and battery storage or something else to fill the gaps, assuming you want no interruption of electricity supply. Currently, that something else is usually oil or gas, being easily turn off and on-able. In terms of land-use alone wind and solar are not reasonable solutions on their own. We’d need to destroy huge amounts of the natural world to meet our existing power use.
Each time we learn more about the technology we find problems.
How much longer can I keep believing in a technological fix? Doing so is increasingly looking like a kind of faith and I don’t think faith is rational. I’m not saying that these technologies are all bad, many of them might be useful as part of a bigger solution, but delaying action on ecological problems in the hope that they’ll soon be solved by some promising-sounding technology is rash. It’s almost like another form of climate denialism. Not denying that the planet is warming because of human activity, but denying that we need to take action about it now. Half of all emissions have been released since 1988. If we had taken radical action thirty years ago the problem would have been much easier to solve. The longer we put off emissions reductions, the harder it gets and the more people who’ll suffer.
Even if the problem of emitting CO2 leading to a warming planet can be solved, there are issues of soil erosion and desertification, water pollution leading to ocean “dead zones”, mass extinction of vertebrates and insects. Many of these things have knock-on effects on food security. In modern life it’s easy to forget that we don’t exist separately from nature, we’re part of it. We all eat food, drink water and breathe air and depend on a variety of natural systems to survive. When those systems break down, our survival is at stake.
Governments tend to be short-sighted and concerned with preserving business-as-usual. Current political drama may seem important, but it won’t matter in ten years time. Climate change and ecological collapse are only going to get more urgent. We need governments to tell the truth about climate change. We need collective action because individual action is ineffective and only serves to move the focus away from corporations and governments who could make the biggest difference.
I don’t have the answers, but waiting around for a technological saviour is not working.