The technology to save Earth’s climate

Today I saw this on Twitter, and really as far as I know there’s nothing farfetched or new, here:

I got into a brief back-and-forth with someone about the suggestion that “new technology” is where to look for hope. This notion bugs me; basically, it amounts to saying “I want this hard problem resolved for me by a new factor which doesn’t currently exist.”

This is the reality of most “technology” responses to the climate crisis. They aren’t responses, at all, but instead attempts to sidestep the issue.

That said, it occurred to me that in some sense, the reality is that we do need some incredible advancements in “technology” to survive the climate crisis.

I’m not even referring to the volume of greenhouse gasses already vented into the atmosphere, and how at this point, scenarios which halt warming at only a very dangerous level mostly depend on negative GHG emissions at a scale of which existing technology is not really capable.

That aside, I have generally sided with the assertion that we know enough to solve this problem, we just need “political will.” I still side with this assertion, much more than with nonsense about “clean coal.” (Imagine someone asserting c. 1990 that okay yes, millions of frequent smokers are harming air quality for everyone, but rather than impose any restrictions we should just hold out for a way to burn tobacco cleanly.)

But in a real and honest sense, it seems like the scale of social reorganization necessary to solve the hardest collective action problem in human history—i.e. “finding the political will”—is about as much a dream of a much more advanced civilization as are planetary-scale carbon capture, geoengineering, or cold fusion.

Certainly, starting where we are now, effective solutions basically require transforming all of the major economies in the world, in a hurry. Which in the absence of fantastically benign authoritarian governments, basically amounts to solving the fundamental question of fairness, itself. One can imagine sociology, economics and political science working that out in another 500 or 1,000 years; why not.

But right now, this seems to require an understanding of these realms—a technology, in a sense—which we aren’t close to.

I think this issue remains with climate change even if, for argument’s sake, one goes back 30, 40 years or whatever to a time when it seems plausibly like we might have done without a purposeful transformation of the global economy, if a few of the leading industrialized nations simply put a price on carbon and let “the market” work out gradually how to create a zero-carbon economy.

The reality is that this problem was known, more than 40 years ago. “Oil shocks” and pollution scares provided further incentives to phase out fossil fuel combustion. Yet it didn’t happen. Common Cause has made an interesting argument that the evil Citizens United court ruling of 2010 reversed momentum that had at last built for bipartisan action on climate… but in the bigger picture I think this is unconvincing. The issue was plain enough for many years before 2010. The United States didn’t take meaningful action anyway, and few other nations have really done so, either, despite effective campaign finance regulation.

Honestly I continue to feel that all of industrial civilization has essentially been one big economic bubble, powered by a toxic fuel which humanity simply lacks the organizing ability and other social “technology” necessary to replace. It’s tempting to believe that the climate crisis has become urgent just at the same time as institutions in the world’s largest economy are hopelessly corroded, and that at some other point American leadership could have led the world out of this disaster. But this seems to rely on a lot of coincidence and American Exceptionalism, both.

More likely, abundant fossil fuel stocks have simply been a kind of planet-scale resource curse: offering concentrated power enough to achieve rapid increases in material standards of living, but also enough that the personal and corporate fortunes based on this concentrate power source have considerable incentive and means to thwart reductions in the value of their fossil fuel assets. Meanwhile, perhaps the very rapidity in the increase in material standards of living also outpaced or even stunted the increase in cultural wisdom necessary to avoid the toxic consequences, in the face of powerful opposition.

Ha, ha. Good one universe.

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