If there is one thing world leaders agree on, it's that innovation can help bring climate change under control. Conservatives prefer technical fixes rather than government regulations to achieve a net-zero carbon economy. Progressives believe new clean-energy technologies will get us there.
There is no question that technological advances are critical. For example, we need methods to store renewable energy and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But we risk using innovation as an excuse to avoid the changes in behaviors, attitudes, and business models that also are necessary.
Carbon-intensive industries can use ideas for technical fixes to avoid their obligation to help society transition to clean energy. For example, fossil-energy producers apparently believe carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) at power plants would allow them to keep profiting from underground reserves of coal, oil, and gas. But there is no evidence CCS power plants will ever compete economically with free energy from sunlight, wind, and other renewable resources.
As climate change progresses, industries and governments may consider innovations with high risks of unintended consequences. Several geoengineering technologies are in that category. For example, solar radiation management (SRM) would reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface. But it raises questions like the impact on photosynthesis at the Earth's surface, which is critical for growing food and sustaining forests and plants that store carbon naturally.
As one U.S. think tank puts it, SRM has progressed from science fiction to "an idea born of desperation" that "demands consideration" as global warming accelerates.
Then there’s the domino effect. Unintended consequences from one technology would require a technical fix that may produce its own undesirable effects, which other new technologies must mitigate, ad infinitum. By relying too heavily on technologies, we could find ourselves taking on more and more of the tasks that nature once performed until we end up like the Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy finds the “great and powerful Wizard,” he turns out to be a small stressed-out man behind a curtain, frantically manipulating dials and levers to regulate all of Oz.
Intentionally and unintentionally, we already manipulate many of the Earth's natural systems. Our faith in technical fixes could lead us to a future where we try to control not only solar radiation but also the chemistry of oceans and the Earth's carbon, hydrologic, nitrogen, and oxygen cycles. We already manipulate genomes. Artificial intelligence is advancing toward the singularity, where technologies control us rather than the other way around.
We are well on the way to building our own Oz. We have made Faustian decisions about whether to live as part of the natural order or behave like gods. We’ve often chosen gods, replacing natural systems and cycles that regulated the Earth for 4.5 billion years. If our common sense, wisdom, and morality do not keep up with our technologies, our yellow-brick road could lead to earthly perdition.
Here in 2022, in a rapidly progressing climate crisis of our own making, we must decide whether to fix the natural systems and cycles we have broken or keep trying to control organic processes we don't fully understand. Our record so far has been disastrous.
As we know, humanity’s impacts on the Earth so far have been so profound, that the world’s geologists are thinking about declaring that a new epoch, the Anthropocene, has begun. Unfortunately, all the impacts to justify the Anthropocene are negative. Geologists describe them as:
… an order-of-magnitude increase in erosion and sediment transport associated with urbanization and agriculture; marked and abrupt anthropogenic perturbations of the cycles of elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and various metals together with new chemical compounds; environmental changes generated by these perturbations, including global warming, sea-level rise, ocean acidification and spreading oceanic 'dead zones'; rapid changes in the biosphere both on land and in the sea, as a result of habitat loss, predation, explosion of domestic animal populations and species invasions; and the proliferation and global dispersion of many new 'minerals' and 'rocks' including concrete, fly ash and plastics, and the myriad 'technofossils' produced from these and other materials.
"Many of these changes will persist for millennia or longer and are altering the trajectory of the Earth System," according to the working group of geologists who recommended the Anthropocene be made official.
Cautioning against the careless use of new technologies does not make us Luddites. If we are smart, we'll choose to be the planet's healers and stewards rather than its wayward wizards. We'll dedicate the rest of this century to stabilizing the climate and restoring the natural systems we've broken.