On 13 February 2015, the journal Science published an article titled “Fund climate intervention research, study says.” The article reports on the findings of a National Research Council study, which advocates slowing global warming by spraying microscopic particles into the upper atmosphere, thereby reducing the brightness of the sun.
In an apparently rational tone, the Science article discusses not the pros and cons of re-engineering the atmosphere, but reports on obstacles to manufacturing public approval for the approach. Noting the “albedo modification” proposal “faced skeptics from both right and left — from conservative lawmakers who felt it addressed a nonexistent threat and from environmentalists worried that geoengineering would sap support for [CO2] emissions cuts,” the article ends on an optimistic note, suggesting that hopefully the study “will end such gridlock — and help the United States avoid the controversies that have crippled climate engineering research elsewhere.” Nevermind people who worry something might go wrong or who like seeing the sun.
Such technological approaches to resolving problems with climate change are not motivated by concern for the environment: they are a way to increase funding opportunities for researchers while divorcing science as a social enterprise from moral questions about what science does. In terms of the psychology of addiction, this is organized science proposing to act as an enabler.
The straightforward policy solution to the current level of American CO2 emissions is to make energy more expensive. If energy were more expensive, Americans would use less energy and CO2 emissions would decrease. No risky, high-tech research subsidy is required. This is Economics 101.
Policy can’t change what people believe about CO2 emissions, but policy can change how individuals spend their money. The price system is how society makes collective decisions about the allocation of resources in a market economy. To save the planet, individuals would determine how to spend the money they aren’t spending on expensive energy.
Making energy more expensive doesn’t just mean increasing the cost of electric light and Internet browsing. Meat is very energy-intensive to produce. Since it takes far more energy to produce a pound of meat than it takes to produce a pound of vegetable protein, the price of meat would increase under this scenario. People would eat less meat as a result. Eating meat three times a week instead of three times a day is the easiest single thing Americans can do to reduce CO2 emissions. This would additionally reduce animal cruelty, reduce antibiotic consumption, and reduce agricultural runoff, leading to cleaner water. Since 80% of antibiotics used in the United States are given to livestock as a preventive measure, reducing antibiotic consumption would also help preserve one of the most effective tools available to modern medicine, which is presently under threat from over-use and drug-resistant bacteria.
The only sane way to view the National Research Council’s geoengineering report is as a provocation. It means that the American lifestyle cannot continue. It does not mean that we need more technology to keep living the way we do. It means technology has pushed us to the brink of ecological catastrophe.
The belief that more technology will solve the problems created by technology is an irrational article of faith. Modern technology simply hasn’t been around long enough to demonstrate that it can solve the problems it creates. The rise of modern technological civilization — which is the proximate cause of climate change — dates to the inventions of the Newcomen and Watt engines around the year 1750. These inventions — which powered the industrial revolution — were inspired by two principle causes: the Renaissance revival of Vitruvius and his three departments of architecture (buildings, machines, timepieces), combined with the need for an energy subsidy in the face of widespread wood shortages caused by deforestation (the steam engine was invented to pump water from coal mines because the English ran out of wood to burn for fuel).
Given that modern technological civilization is only some 250 years old, then if follows that: 1) modern technology has been an unbelievably destructive force globally when viewed across civilizational time scales, and 2) viewed across civilizational time scales, there is an almost complete lack of evidence that modern technology is able to solve the problems it creates. Geoengineering is a short-sighted solution, and probably insane.
The Connection to Growth
The only demonstrably effective way to reverse course is to slow the rate of technological growth. Today’s rate of growth is not some inherent feature of technology, but a political construct put in place after World War II. It is a (largely unexamined) policy problem. I know how repugnant ending growth must sound to a researcher, for whom the search for truth has become a secondary concern, but it’s the most logical solution. Occam’s Razor agrees.
Growth will end. We have only to decide whether it ends rationally or in disaster.