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Stopping Climate Change (or not)

Recently we (CRN) posted a somewhat controversial article about four stages of Climate Change Denialism. Our fourth level of denial was characterized as “Global warming is happening, and it is a result of human actions, and it will be catastrophic, but that’s okay.”

Jamais Cascio then offered this as an alternate:

Global warming is happening, and it is a result of human actions, and it will be catastrophic, but it’s too late to do anything about it other than adapt.

In retrospect, I probably should have chosen a word other than ‘denial’, because the ultimate point is not about acceptance or rejection of climate change as a real phenomenon, but about our response to it. As Jamais suggests, it is possible to accept everything about global warming and still reject proposed solutions as either unworkable, ineffective, or both.

That’s the point of view expressed in a new article from Foreign Policy magazine on “Why Climate Change Can’t Be Stopped.”

Environmental advocates have finally managed to put the issue of global warming at the top of the world’s agenda. But the scientific, economic, and political realities may mean that their efforts are too little, too late.

As the world’s leaders gather in New York this week to discuss climate change, you’re going to hear a lot of well-intentioned talk about how to stop global warming. From the United Nations, Bill Clinton, and even the Bush administration, you’ll hear about how certain mechanisms—cap-and-trade systems for greenhouse gas emissions, carbon taxes, and research and development plans for new energy technologies—can fit into some sort of global emissions reduction agreement to stop climate change. Many of these ideas will be innovative and necessary; some of them will be poorly thought out. But one thing binds them together: They all come much too late.

For understandable reasons, environmental advocates don’t like to concede this point. Eager to force deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, many of them hype the consequences of climate change—in some cases, well beyond what is supported by the facts—to build political support. Their expensive policy preferences are attractive if they are able to convince voters that if they make economic sacrifices for the environment, they have a reasonable chance of halting, or at least considerably slowing, climate change. But this case is becoming harder, if not impossible, to make.

To accept the argument that climate change cannot be stopped, you have to agree with three premises:

  1. A political solution isn’t going to happen. Too many entrenched interests will hinder adoption of any meaningful steps.
  2. Even if the most far-reaching political solutions could be implemented, it still would not be enough to make a substantial difference.
  3. Not even the most radical proposals for a technological fix will be sufficient. It’s simply too late, because the complex systems we’ve unleashed will prove to be overwhelming and intractable. Moreover, as Jamais Cascio has said, “we know nowhere near enough to make terraforming a plausible or safe option.”

In the same article that I just referred to above, Jamais says, “Our best pathway to avoiding climate disaster remains the rapid reduction and elimination of anthropogenic greenhouse gases.”

Note that he suggests two different actions: reduction and elimination of anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

The first step, substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions, is mainly what the most aggressive political solutions from Premise 1 would accomplish. But if only the first step is followed, then we run up against Premise 2, namely that it’s too little, too late.

So we’d have to also work toward eliminating greenhouse gases already in the air. That likely would require one or more of the radical technological solutions currently being advanced.

However, here’s the rub: if you accept Premise 3, that won’t work either. It’s quite possible, some might say probable, that even a powerful new technology such as molecular manufacturing could not be employed effectively to blunt the catastophic impacts of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and rapidly shifting weather patterns.

Are you with me so far? If so, it looks like we’re screwed. Am I ready, then, to jump on the climate change can’t be stopped bandwagon? I’m not, for several important reasons:

  • First, we don’t really know what effect political solutions that focus on reduction of carbon emissions might have. Although it seems unlikely, it is possible that a rapid and comprehensive switch away from fossil fuels could make a big difference.
  • Second, as Brian Wang points out, even if such changes don’t have an appreciable effect on climate change, they would have other big benefits, including reduction of deaths from pollution, from mining, and from war.
  • Third, we also don’t know whether or not ideas like mirrors in space to deflect sunlight can be of help. Further research into any such proposals that seem feasible should be encouraged.
  • Fourth, we should not adopt any position that would further the aims of the industrial, commercial, and political forces (see monstrous hybrid) aligned against taking action. That can only make the problem worse.
  • Fifth, not often will an issue arise that galvanizes a global population to call for action with only long-term benefits. This is a time to push for huge changes that will have lasting effects. It’s not a time to encourage complacency or resignation.
  • Sixth, since it appears that molecular manufacturing may be the only technology powerful enough to have a significant impact in ameliorating the effects of climate change, and since there are so many other great benefits to be gained through the development of molecular manufacturing, then we should strongly support research in that direction.


Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.

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