Climate Tech: Solution, Distraction, or Disaster?
There is a lot of technological innovation happening in response to the climate crisis—but keep in mind there’s a complicated story behind each invention. So far, most have not proved scalable, and some are just downright freaky. Many experts say that over-relying on unproven tech dreams only gives license to the fossil fuel industry to continue with business as usual instead of getting their asses in gear to reduce carbon emissions now. Others say we have to stay open to tech solutions and invest more in R&D. Here are a few of the options on the table right now.
We’ve been making incremental progress on this clean energy recently, and it could someday be very cool! The ultimate goal is to build a reactor that could operate indefinitely. But fusion is still in the concept stage, and most likely won’t be a reliable or scalable energy source for at least three decades. Meanwhile, we have to get through this crisis now, with the tools we already have. If we can do that, fusion power may be a boon to humanity down the line.
Direct carbon capture and storage
So far, direct carbon capture and storage has not proved scalable, and the fundamental thermodynamics of the problem could mean it will always be too expensive to scale up. A prototype was turned on in Iceland in 2020 to much fanfare, but it takes a year to capture the amount of carbon humanity currently emits every three seconds. We’d need to build ten million such plants to deal with all our emissions. Imagine the cost (and emissions!) required to build all those carbon capture plants—not to mention the energy it would take to power them. Is it ethical or responsible to saddle our kids with this, on top of all the fires, floods, agricultural collapse, and deadly heat waves they’ll have to deal with? Plus, the fossil fuel industry loves direct carbon capture because it distracts the public, gives false hope, and deflects blame and outrage away from them.
Solar aerosol geoengineering
Here’s where things get extra sticky. Manipulating the climate by sending up swarms of airplanes to pump sulfate aerosols high in the atmosphere to reflect sunlight away from the earth (aka stratospheric aerosol injection) could slow down warming. It’s a feasible tech intervention that could be implemented tomorrow, and it’s reasonably inexpensive. Sounds pretty cool. What could go wrong? (Cue the Jaws theme . . . )
Aside from polluting our upper atmosphere, an intervention like this would likely be used by policy makers to delay ending our reliance on fossil fuels, so while we distributed our aerosol shield, we would simultaneously keep pumping out carbon like there’s no tomorrow (or rather, endless tomorrows). Now imagine what happens if those planes can’t continually release those aerosols? This could happen for any number of reasons, economic insecurity and war being some of the most obvious. In a matter of weeks, there would be a global spike in temperature. It would be catastrophic—more so than if we had just continued with our normal emissions. This climate boomerang effect is called “termination shock.”
It could take us into the worst dystopian world we can imagine. Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer portrayed one such example of this kind of fallout, although in reality instead of an ice world, we’d be facing a world that became crazy hot overnight.
Some experts argue geoengineering could buy us time and “flatten the curve” of global heating, while others say there are too many unknowns, including ozone layer decay, temperature swings, and changes in rainfall patterns that could devastate some nations. It also wouldn’t stop or heal ocean acidification and other impacts of the climate crisis.
Other geoengineering schemes that have been floated—such as launching millions of space mirrors into orbit, dumping iron into the oceans to fertilize phytoplankton growth, and crushing rocks (enhanced weathering)—are now widely considered unfeasible.
If you decide to portray these technologies in your stories, make sure you are not uplifting them as a panacea. This isn’t savior tech; it’s risky planetary experimentation—at best. A misinformed portrayal could lead to a lot of well-meaning audience members believing and propagating that misinformation. There are a ton of experts who would love to talk to you about this and help out, and we would be thrilled to put you in touch. Check out our Library of Experts for a good place to start.
Other considerations and contradictions
Most solutions require some measure of cognitive dissonance. Producing solar panels and car batteries for electric vehicles involves mining and destroying natural habitats for lithium and cobalt, and workers are all too often exploited in the production process—and then there are the emissions that are pumped out in the process of manufacturing new electric cars and batteries. Meanwhile, plant-based food innovation is amazing for the planet, but we still need to be mindful of monocropping, the impacts on soil, and the need for biodiversity. We need many solutions, not just one corporation to save the day. But maybe these ironies themselves could act as story fodder.
Like Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm, it’s important to stop and ask: Just because we can do something, should we? Why or why not? Who gets to decide? Who will be impacted? Who will pay for it if we do, and who will pay if we don’t? What are the true costs?