When I was a freshman in high school, I heard about Harvard’s project on seeding the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to slow climate change, and I thought it sounded like a really great idea.[i] For context, atmospheric seeding is a type of geo-engineering which would use airplanes to release particles into the upper atmosphere to block solar radiation and prevent additional warming. High school me didn’t care if it might backfire and cause even more damage to the planet, because climate change was going to destroy the natural world as we know it anyway. Hearing about a possible solution to the climate crisis which could work quickly enough to avoid serious tipping points gave me hope where I previously had almost none. My concerns about climate change have never been just about the danger to the human race—the devastation of our natural world, which is already happening at an alarming rate, is the saddest part to me. Even if we meet the goals of the Paris Climate accords and limit warming under 2° C, there will still be massive species and habitat loss, fires and other natural disasters, ocean acidification and more, not to mention the humanitarian crises from warming and sea-level rise.[ii] Faced with these looming catastrophes, I thought that seeding the atmosphere sounded like an ideal solution.
The climate crisis elicits a great variety of human reactions—determination, denial, hope, grief, defeat, and many more. But what of those who respond with: “there’s no need to worry, technology will save us!” This reaction might be seen by many as a form of denial, but to those who hold it, it is an unshakable faith. Realistically, it is already too late to prevent the effects of climate change. We are already experiencing wildfires, extinctions, sea level rise, temperature changes, and more.[iii] Even if a perfect carbon sequestration device were invented and implemented tomorrow, global warming patterns will likely continue for at least another century, and we can never get back what we have already lost.[iv] While existing technologies like renewable energy could do a great deal in slowing climate change, they have not been implemented to the necessary scale. New technologies could take decades to become cost-effective, and implementation is still a significant barrier. Those who believe in a technological savior do so almost irrationally, attributing magical qualities to the capabilities and promise of a technologically advanced future and ignoring political and monetary barriers. Where does this stubborn hope come from?
In 1966, physicist Alvin Weinberg proposed the concept of a “technological fix”—a technological or scientific cure to a social problem.[v] In his day, the most promising new technology was the nuclear reactor, which seemed to promise a future of a cheap and endless supply of energy. Weinberg suggested adapting this technology to solve a social problem—the overuse of freshwater. This problem could be solved if many people (or corporations—this is a factor Weinberg does not mention) made the choice to reduce their consumption of water.[vi] But social change is very difficult and time consuming to accomplish. Instead, Weinberg proposed a technological fix—nuclear-powered desalination plants. Weinberg argued that if even a fraction of the government spending which went to the space program was used to build nuclear desalination plants, places like California could have an endless supply of fresh water, and there would be no need for social change.
As we all know, this never happened, and California now faces even more severe water shortages. A world powered by nuclear energy never happened either. Why? Something Weinberg didn’t take into account—public perception of nuclear energy. Despite its general safety and renewability, the tiny possibility for nuclear meltdowns and other fears of the effects of radiation have caused most of the world to use very little nuclear energy. Weinberg’s faith in nuclear technology was unfounded, and his fix was foiled by social factors. Today, many people still share Weinberg’s faith in technology and hope for a technological fix for the climate crisis. In fact, a recent study found that faith in technological progress positively predicts greater life satisfaction than religious faith.[vii] This might seem like a surprising result, but similarly to some religious faith, technological faith takes responsibility for the future out of individuals’ hands and places it in the domain of a more powerful force. This faith in technology may provide comfort to those who have it, but that kind of thinking, especially when it comes to climate change, can lead people to avoid advocating for action on climate change themselves. We need to think realistically about the climate crisis we are already facing and what we can do to mitigate some of the worst effects. My younger self had faith in the idea of seeding the atmosphere, but realistically it is nearly impossible to test and has the potential to cause serious atmospheric disturbances outside of its intended effects. Additionally, even as a last ditch effort it would require a level of global cooperation which has never been achieved before.
If Weinberg’s technological fix for water overuse way back in the 60s didn’t work, why should we have faith in a technological fix for the climate crisis? It is a much larger problem and the solutions are far less obvious. Even though we have some renewable energy technologies, we do not have ways to use renewable energy for every technology we use today, such as air travel. On top of the lack of actual technology, there are numerous social factors preventing even the use of the technology we have now. Our modern economy is controlled by massive corporations who have no interest in changing their operations to slow climate change, and governments have little incentive to push for energy reform.
So what can we do? Technological fixes like geo-engineering could cause more harm than good, and other technologies like carbon sequestration are not well funded or developed enough to make a real difference. Renewable energy technology is available, but the process of adopting it is very slow. I don’t really have an answer, but I think it is very important to understand the realities of how far we already are into the climate crisis and what it is too late to prevent, and to focus on the social and economic aspects of climate change mitigation. Blindly resting our faith on a technological fix could lead us further away from a better future. That doesn’t mean we should ignore all climate change related technologies, but we should be careful about how much we rely on them to protect our futures. Social problems require social fixes—what we need is change in business and government policy—otherwise, technology will never even have a chance to help us.
By Anneke Taylor
And check out this infographic page if you wanna get more depressed: https://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/how-many-gigatons-of-co2/
Note: This source was last updated in 2016, meaning that if trends have continued, we have 3 years left before we break our carbon budget!
[ii] McCandless, David. “How Many Gigatons of CO2…?” Information is Beautiful. Information is Beautiful, July 30, 2020. https://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/how-many-gigatons-of-co2/.
[iv] “Is It Too Late to Prevent Climate Change?” Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. NASA, 2021.
[v] Weinberg, Alvin M. “Can technology replace social engineering?.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 22, no. 10 (1966): 4-8.
[vii] Stavrova, Olga, Daniel Ehlebracht, and Detlef Fetchenhauer. “Belief in scientific–technological progress and life satisfaction: The role of personal control.” Personality and Individual Differences 96 (2016): 227-236.