Two approaches to climate control

The Guardian leader today drew what it called a crude distinction between “two sets of people who both want to fight climate change”.   Some think we can carry on more or less as we are while pursuing technological means to counterbalance the accelerating impact of our species on the natural environment, while their opponents think we should be getting that species to make radical changes in its way of life before its home becomes uninhabitable.   The article was mainly about plans for carbon capture, but there had been another piece a few days before about much further reaching ideas of geoengineering or ‘ecohacking’ – “using science to change the environment on a vast scale” by such means as screening the whole planet from the sun – which, it seems, might become feasible sooner than we realize.

As Steve Clarke commented in his blog a few days ago, the two directions of approach – trying to cut back emissions and trying to undo the harm they do – are not inherently incompatible.   We can look for ways to alter the way we live, and find more eco-friendly technologies, at the same time as pursuing research into ways to remedy whatever harm we continue to do.  But the thrust of the Guardian leader is that success is much further off, and much less certain, and much more expensive, than many of its proponents suggest.  We must not mistake the possibility for current reality, and if these technical fixes are to have any chance of being effective we will have to put enormous investment into them.  This means that effort and money spent on such research will have to be taken not only from the development of alternative, non-polluting technologies, but from projects aimed at achieving the just, simple, non-consumerist society that would obviate the need for so many resources.

No doubt many of the people on the opposing sides no doubt have their own motives for promoting or playing down the technological fixes. Some people think we are simply wrong to live in the way we do, and as a result may be too quick to dismiss the prospects for remedial technologies; others, who want to carry on their present way of life without proclaiming themselves as selfish or unconcerned about future generations, will claim confidence in technological fixes.  But even though we are as a species amazingly good at adjusting our beliefs to what fits comfortably with our existing preferences or ideologies, it is still worth trying to find objective evidence about important matters.  Are we in fact more likely to succeed in averting climate change by putting our main resources and energies into technological fixes for the way we are now going, or trying to bring about a simpler, less selfish, less competitive and materialistic, kind of society?

There is some tendency to think of these as radically different kinds of project – almost as though the social change option is about doing what we morally ought to do, while the pursuit of technological fixes is an attempt to escape the unwelcome consequences of what we should never have done in the first place.   But from the point of view of anyone trying to curtail global warming the two kinds of project are essentially the same.  The first problem is to decide on the end to be achieved;  the second is to understand the workings of the world well enough to be able to intervene and achieve that end.

It may seem that both projects have climate control as their aim;  but in the case of trying to achieve it by social change things are more complicated.   If climate change were the only issue we could perhaps aim to instal a ferocious world dictator with the power curtail all activities of an unsuitable sort.  But that is not the kind of change its advocates are usually thinking of.   They envisage ecological change as being brought about in conjunction with, and by means of, changes in social attitudes that are desirable in themselves (consider the name ‘Greenpeace’);  and once you try to go beyond vague generalities it is extraordinarily difficult to find any clarity, let alone agreement, about what the aim should be.  The first part of this project, therefore, would have to be one involving a good deal of moral and political philosophy, and the social sciences.  Capturing carbon or blocking sunlight are much more straightforward aims.

And then there is the problem of how to achieve whatever end is decided on.   We know that the technological stuff is difficult and demands a great deal of research;   but we should, equally, know that manipulating the attitudes and behaviour of even individual human beings, let alone the amazing complexity of human societies, is something about which we know very little and over which we have remarkably limited power.   If we need to find out not only how to transform human society, but how to transform it in such a way as to make people willing to give up the competitiveness that escalates consumption and sacrifice the advantages and comforts they already have, while keeping the kinds of freedom we regard as essential to a decent society, we have on hand a research project that makes setting up global sunscreens look like a hobby for wet afternoon.   

This is not to say a word against any kind of effort to improve human society, or to lessen reliance on fossil fuels.   It is just that if we want to do something about global warming before the earth is swallowed by the sun, we had better not wait until we know how to make the radical modifications of human nature and global society that might achieve it – let alone reach consensus about the deepest problems of moral and political philosophy.

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