And can we even do it?
Most of us know that we are facing an unprecedented problem of changing climate. What will it take to make things better for the human species and any other species that happens to be affected by our activities?
1. We need to find the right combinations of technologies that will prevent further climatic shifts or allow us to adapt.
2. We have to have a critical mass of humans using those technologies soon enough that they will have the desired impact.
Seems pretty straightforward, except that, well, it’s not. Humans are a complicated bunch.
1. Finding the right technologies
Technologies that will “solve” climate change need to do one of two things.
The first is to reduce green house gasses and mitigate the impact of the our global economy to reduce the amount by which climate is affected by human activities.
The other is to find ways to adapt to existing climate change.
We don’t actually know what we’re up against in terms of climate change impacts, but we have some clues. Climate modeling is all done within a margin of error. We are never going to be 100 percent sure that we know the relationship between green house gasses and climate change, but generally the changes in climate have been very closely aligned with mainstream predictions.
We don’t know which parts of the planet will be affected specifically but we will figure the local and global impacts out.
Humans are good at technology. We’re pretty good as a species about coming up with new ways to adapt. It may be possible to covert agriculture to saline water sources on a large scale. We won’t be eating wheat, but quinoa does quite well in brackish water. We may all live in domed cities with climate control, or eat a lot more sea weed and farmed fish, or lab-grown protein sources, or drive electric solar-powered vehicles. We can develop the tech to deal with whatever comes along as long as we have an idea of what it is that we need to do.
Technologies that mitigate climate change are a bit more difficult because we don’t have a completely clear understanding of the mechanisms between mitigative technologies and climate response. So should we go with 100% electric cars? Or is better to get people to stop taking airplanes to go on holidays, or can the airline industry respond by producing viable biofuel options? Or is it better if people just stop having kids? Or stop using plastic, or stop using paper so the forests don’t get cut down, or stop eating palm oil, or avoid meat, or refuse to wear leather, or walk everywhere we go, or invest in climate friendly stocks, or … the list goes on.
We actually don’t really know which of these choices would actually produce the desired impact, and as an economist, the first question would be which is the cheapest option for the most impact? What’s the best bang for our climate-smart bucks? There’s really no way to know except to try things and hope we got it right. We know where the emissions of carbon are coming from, but there are greenhouse gasses that may be more important than carbon, like methane, ozone, or water vapour. Water vapour might be the most important green house gas.
2. Getting a critical mass to adopt those technologies
Huston, we have a problem.
We don’t have a global, local or regional consensus on whether we should focus on mitigation or adaptation, so we aren’t sure which technologies are more critical. If we manage mitigation we don’t need as many adaptation technologies. If we can’t manage mitigation, we sure do need all the adaptation strategies.
We don’t really know what mitigation technologies will work because while we think we understand the broad strokes of connection between green house gasses and climate, we don’t necessarily understand the fine detail. Plus mitigation is seriously expensive. Changing from fossil fuels to more expensive forms of energy like solar, wind, tidal power, or anything not oil/coal/natural gas is a big deal. Even biofuels like ethanol are usually subsidized and they still emit green house gasses.
We have a fractured global governance structure where there is little to no real scope for governments to work together to make large-scale changes.
If we can identify the correct set of technologies that will work, we have no way to get them to people to use them except through the mechanism of the capitalist private market. Right now, the incentives for people to adopt newer and frankly more expensive technologies are not that strong. Globalization has brought a lot of benefits to most countries, but the downside of globalization is that people who used to work in coal extraction or manufacturing in the US are out of work, and nothing else has come along that uses similar skill sets. Those jobs have been “off-shored,” or exported to places with cheaper labour. The end result is that there are lots of people living paycheque to paycheque and who frankly cannot afford the luxury of a “green” car, or carbon taxes, or any of the other measures that might have an impact. Most of the world is still pretty poor. While they are not the ones generating green house gasses, they are also not in a position to consume in different ways that will impact climate change in a significant way.
The short story is that if people aren’t buying, the private sector cannot distribute greener technologies.
To achieve a large scale adoption of greener technologies, we’re talking about a major shift in how we produce, transport, consume, and dispose of the majority of what we need to live in richer part of the world. There are major social reasons that getting the economy to shift is harder than it may look. There are a lot of people making a lot of money from the way things are being done now. That is not to say that disruptive technologies cannot come along and change the game, in the same way that Netflix has changed the way people consume TV for now and likely forever. Governments that run on making life more expensive for consumers are not always that popular — there’s a reason that we have a resurgence of right wing anti-immigrant populism in Europe, in the US and elsewhere. People who have been left behind by globalization fear the other and will never embrace policies that embrace globalization and they can’t afford higher costs of living.
The technologies have to work. The way to find technologies that work is to put money into research and development. As I said earlier, humans are amazingly good at getting gadgets to work or finding new ways of doing things. We can fund, and are funding, the research.
What we suck at as a species is finding ways to work together. Where we are lacking is in the social structures or institutions that allow us to investigate ways that we can coordinate responses to long-term, large-scale threats.
Governments are really happy to pour money into technological development when the technologies are fancy new cars or better agricultural systems or better transportation networks that reduce green house gasses.
What they are usually less invested in is social science research. Political scientists, economists, sociologists, and psychiatrists have a different set of tools to examine human behaviour and their work could potentially generate a better understanding of institutions, institutional change, human decisions and choices and how — if we can figure out what technologies we need to use — how to get people to adopt them with enough critical mass that the desired impacts on climate change can happen.
As things stand, unless the benevolent dictatorship model of governance evolves and imposes the right climate-smart solutions on the global population, what are the chances that we will adopt the technologies even if they exist? Social scientists are the people investigating what other tools might be useful in this discussion of adoption and uptake of technologies.
What are trade-offs between different consumption options, including greener technologies? ask the economists.
What are the reasons people make specific consumption choices? ask psychologists.
What are the social constraints that are institutionalized that prevent people from changing? ask the sociologists.
What governance structures will allow international coordination of efforts to generate impact? ask the political scientists.
Right now, the discussion has focused almost exclusively on the bells and whistles of the physical technologies that are needed. If we think we have identified the right set of tools, let’s start talking about how to get them in the hands of the people.
We can generate all the bells and whistles we want. If people don’t adopt them on a global scale, we don’t stand a chance at preventing or adaption to climate change. We need the social sciences to contribute to the discussion.