State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Climate Change, Politics, Technology and Our Way of Life

Once again America has seen the impact of extreme weather, as a heating planet causes winds, floods and devastation. Communities like Mexico Beach, Florida, are literally blown off their foundations. Yes, we’ve seen hurricanes before, and there are more people in the pathway of danger and so in some way we should expect all of this. But the storms are just a little more frequent and more intense than before and it’s difficult to ignore the fact that the scale of our technology and the emissions from fossil fuels are a cause of what we are seeing. The IPCC’s most recent report accelerates the timetable for climate impacts, while the science of climate change continues to be doubted by people determined to maintain their willful ignorance.

The problem is that this profound challenge to our way of life is not generated by bombers overhead or terrorist explosions you can see and hear, but by the subtle movement of temperature. The economic, social and governance machine we have created and rely on cannot simply be turned off. Technology has changed our skills, behavior and numbers. We cannot simply get back to the land and live a simple life “at one with nature.” There’s too many of us and not enough nature. Moreover, we wouldn’t know how to do the work that our great grandparents knew all too well. Most of us don’t know how to make our own food, clothing and shelter. We are dependent on the technology that is endangering the planet.

People in the developed world are reluctant to change how they live and people in the developing world are desperate to live like people in the developed world. The political pressure created by the widespread demand for modern technology and economic well-being is fierce and irresistible. The leaders of the world, both democratic and autocratic, feel this pressure and have little choice but respond to it. This leads me, as always, to the same place. The solution to the problems created by our technology can only realistically be solved by new technology. The heart of the issue is energy and our desperate need to transition as quickly as possible away from fossil fuels.

It is far from surprising that the people who own fossil fuels and the infrastructure needed to mine, transport and burn it oppose this transition. The politicians that achieve and maintain power with funds provided by fossil fuel owners and operators are tenacious and aggressive. Climate science is unfortunately largely irrelevant to them, as a mountain of IPCC reports have already demonstrated. But fortunately for the future of humanity there are countervailing pressures. It starts with clean air and, as I often say, people like to breathe. We’ve kind of gotten used to it. Burning coal and other fossil fuels not only generates greenhouse gases but also emits the more conventional pollutants that immediately and directly impair human health. Unlike climate change, cause and effect cannot be missed. So, there is political pressure to figure out a way to generate the energy we all depend on in a way that doesn’t harm our respiratory system. This has resulted in a major shift in energy policy in places as diverse as China, New York, California and Germany. There is widespread political support in these places to get off of fossil fuels as fast as we can.

The other source of pressure against fossil fuels is the modern economy itself. With automation we need fewer and fewer people to make the material things we need. In the U.S. over 80% of our GDP is in the service sector. The modern economy is fast moving and characterized by the rise of disruptive technologies and the companies that make them. While Apple, Google and Microsoft do not have the political muscle of Exxon-Mobil and the Koch brothers, political power has a way of gravitating to those with economic power. The results are not always good, but the trajectory is predictable. Tech companies and service businesses are highly dependent on energy, but would do better with a smarter, computer-controlled, more efficient and less vulnerable energy system than the one we have. Moreover, many of them see the money to be made in the transition to a modern, renewable resource-based economy.  While it would be helpful if the American national government would invest in the scientific research and infrastructure to make this transition move faster, I don’t expect to see much coming from this White House.

But I’m reminded that DeWitt Clinton asked for federal help to build the Erie Canal, and when he was refused he raised the money elsewhere. That piece of infrastructure transformed American commerce and made New York City a commercial powerhouse. The U.S. national government is not the only game in town. Our need for energy creates a variety of nonfederal revenue streams that can be tapped to finance the transition away from fossil fuels. California’s decarbonization program provides a model on how to get this done. I am betting that national efforts to prevent California from decarbonizing will fail. State’s rights, and California’s strong bipartisan green consensus will trump (excuse the pun) the preferences and power of fossil fuel and motor vehicle interests.

Californians, like most Americans, want the freedom to move around and use the energy they need in their homes and businesses. But they see the solar farms being built, solar arrays being installed and the windfarms under construction. They do not believe they need to trade off a clean environment to achieve economic well-being. While this holds for California, the problem with climate change is that we need decarbonization to take place quickly and globally. It is not helpful when China builds coal fired power plants outside of China while building windmills back home. The world has some of the technology we need for the transition to renewable energy, but we do not yet have all we need. I am an optimist and believe that the new technologies we need are coming:

  • New ways to conserve energy at the system level like micro-grids and other methods of making the electric grid more efficient.
  • More energy efficient technologies ranging from laptops to light bulbs, from insulation to motor vehicles.
  • Lower cost, smaller and more efficient solar cells.
  • Lower cost, smaller and more efficient forms of energy storage.

The good news is that the dire predictions of the most recent IPCC report are based on trend lines that assume incremental improvements in technologies. Our experience in the past half century has been that key technologies have been developed more rapidly than we expected and diffused through the world economy with breathtaking speed. Today, we leave our homes with computers in our pockets that can communicate and receive information instantly from anywhere in the world. That is a product we didn’t even know we needed twenty years ago and now cannot live without.

The technologies needed to modernize the energy system are far more important, but no more complicated than the ones that led to the smart phone. When those technologies are developed, those who invested in fossil fuels will be out of luck. The energy grid will remain, but be far more decentralized, with energy generation distributed and the utility energy monopoly disrupted.

While I believe the economic and political forces of change are stronger than the forces resisting change, I am reminded of how long the tobacco lobby has managed to keep their dangerous drug legal. I’ve been on the losing side of enough political battles to know what can go wrong. But the constellation of forces I see here is irresistible. There is simply too much money to be made in getting off fossil fuels and modernizing the energy system, and it’s too important to human and environmental health to maintain business as usual.

Compared to the issues of maintaining the health of our oceans, ecosystems and biodiversity, the climate problem is relatively simple and well understood. The problems are profound and existential, but the solutions are within reach. And it’s a good thing they are. Because we live in a complex, interconnected world where human economic, social and political systems change rapidly as do the natural systems we depend on and abuse. We need to better understand the interactions of these systems and learn to manage them at the organizational level and regulate them when needed by government. We need the knowledge to manage this complexity and that will require improved best practices and effective and enforceable rules. The planet we share has become fragile in the hands of humans and our technology. We can and must develop and adopt sustainability management to gain control of those technologies and reduce their impact on our planet.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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3 years ago

I agree with you Steve, technology does a lot of impact in out day to day lives.
Technology is something we don’t need to fear. We are adaptable creatures. Embrace change, if it is for the better, and master it instead of be at the mercy of it.