How technology is fighting to prevent a climate-change apocalypse


(Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

On Monday, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released an apocalyptic report about the impact of global climate change – suggesting that a hotter, drier Earth brought about by global climate change could lead to everything from famine and civil war to the acidification of the earth’s oceans, ecological crises and disappearing coastal cities. That begs the question, of course: What can Silicon Valley and other tech innovators do to slow or reverse the climate-change apocalypse?

For now, Silicon Valley has focused on the search for a relatively cheap, reliable clean energy solution that can slow down the planet’s consumption of fossil fuels – and by extension, slow down the impact of global climate change. Venture capitalists are still investing hundreds of millions of dollars in “cleantech” companies. Some of the leading minds – such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates – are backing innovative projects and companies to make clean energy mainstream. Innovative companies like Google are looking into ways to power themselves with the sun and the wind. The hope, of course, is that one of the most popular clean energy options – solar, wind or nuclear – can ultimately become a cheap, reliable source of carbon-free power that will wean humanity off fossil fuels.

That’s just the tip of the (melting) iceberg, though, when it comes to what innovators are dreaming up to reduce the impact of global greenhouse gases. One of the most talked-about ideas in the energy sector includes carbon capture and storage – a largely unproven technology that essentially takes some of the carbon being burned from traditional fossil fuels such as coal, and converts it into a harmless gas underground so that it doesn’t enter the atmosphere. And there’s always carbon recycling – an outrageous scheme to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and recycle it for fuel, the same way you might recycle plastic bottles or paper.

Where things get really interesting – and extremely controversial – is when you start talking about geoengineering, which is essentially the ability to change the earth’s climate using man-made means. Up until a few years ago, even mentioning geoengineering could get you branded as an irresponsible scientist. Just consider some of the schemes that have been proposed: arraying giant mirrors in outer space to reflect solar rays, sprinkling the Arctic with a layer of dust, embracing volcanic ash as a cooling mechanism for the planet, and spraying the stratosphere with sulfur dioxide particles.

Yes, there’s a reason why geoengineering is usually referred to as “Planet Hacking” – people are trying to hack the planet in search of better solutions. Unlike a Silicon Valley hackathon, though, an extended planet hackathon could end up wrecking the Earth. Yet, that doesn’t stop the military scientists at DARPA from coming up with big ideas that might just save the planet. At the end of the day, are these “planet hacking” schemes any more fanciful than some of the ideas being espoused by NASA for terraforming alien planets?

At this point, of course, it’s easy to throw one’s hands up and conclude that nothing much can be done to prevent the apocalypse. Either the plans to save the planet are too gradual and won’t save us in time – or they are too speculative and untested and may end up wrecking the planet in the process. And, given the global nature of the problem, that means that even if Elon Musk’s Teslas are the only cars on American highways and every American house has a few solar panels on the roof, it won’t do much if America’s friends around the world aren’t also doing their fair share.

As long as many people continue to doubt the science behind global warming and as long as most people don’t believe that the planet could suffer a Sixth Extinction, then it’s likely we’ll muddle through with a bunch of expensive technology patches. They can be thought of as “adaptation strategies” – short-term solutions that help humanity win the “survival of the fittest” while the planet steadily warms. Rising sea levels? No problem, just build new types of sea walls. Crops failing and a lack of food? Just bio-engineer new foods in the lab or create them with 3D food printers. Species disappearing? Just bring them back via de-extinction.

But there is hope for a brighter future than just accepting a slow, steady march to extinction. In a best-case scenario, many of the developing countries that are growing rapidly will actually skip fossil fuels altogether and shift immediately into clean energy. That could have a tremendous impact in places like China and India, where billions of new people will need a cheap source of clean power. At the same time, one of the big ideas for dealing with greenhouse gases in the atmosphere might actually pay off. And that might buy us enough time so that we don’t have to resort to the really innovative solution that nobody want  to discuss — and that’s leaving the planet forever in search of another Earth-like planet that we can colonize.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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