Why activists have become a bigger obstacle to effective climate policy than denialists

At the root of our climate problem, writes Pope Francis in his ecological encyclical Laudato Si, lies our human pride and arrogance: “The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.” Coming from a Catholic Pope, such sentiments are hardly surprising. For centuries, Christian thinkers have railed against pride as the first and worst among the seven deadly sins. But Francis is far from alone in his view. Many climate activists today, even though they don’t necessarily believe in a personal deity, share Francis’ diagnosis of our environmental worries. They too believe that our climate crisis is the result of human overreach and arrogance, of overstepping natural boundaries. Indeed, this secular environmentalist worldview comes with its own account of the fall of man from an original state of harmony with Nature. Once upon a time, humans lived as an animal alongside other animals, keenly aware of our proper place within a larger ecosystem. We enjoyed nature’s bountiful resources, but we were respectful of her limits. But then along came the scientific revolution and, soon after that, the industrial revolution. By unraveling Nature’s mysteries we gained mastery over her, and we began to treat her as an object to be mercilessly exploited. We turned, as a species, into planetary plunderers.

It’s a compelling narrative but, much like the Genesis story of original sin, it’s hogwash. When we were still living as hunter-gatherers, our ecological footprint was substantially higher, per capita, than today. Our ancestors laid a larger claim on the ecosystem, in return for a much lower standard of living. With a population of no more than a few million, humans managed to wipe out all of the large land animals almost everywhere they set foot. It was the same story with deforestation: relatively small human populations brought about large-scale destruction. Today our planet hosts 7.7 billion people, and our lives are wealthier and healthier than ever before, but if we all lived like our hunter-gatherer forebears, the planet could support about 100 million of us at most. The main reason why our ancestors didn’t wreak even more ecological havoc is that they numbered too few and died too young.

The right way to look at anthropogenic climate change is as an unexpected side-effect of something that, by and large, proved an immense blessing to humanity. Sure, if we had left all those fossilized remains of ancient animals and plants under the ground, we would not now be stuck with rising global temperatures. But then our lives would also have remained solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, as they had been for the better part of world history until around 1800. Eventually, the Industrial Revolution even turned out to be good news for Nature. Once humans had gained access to an abundant source of high-density energy such as coal, they no longer had to cut down forests to cook food or to keep warm, and they stopped hunting whales to fill their oil lamps. Historical research shows that pollution in Europe was much worse in the Middle Ages, and that three quarters of global deforestation occurred before 1800, not after. According to WWF’s Living Planet Index, nature is starting to flourish again in wealthy, industrialized countries. Forests are being restored, rivers are teeming with life again, and wildlife that had disappeared for decades or even centuries is making a steady comeback.

But all that is history. How about the future, in particular the future of our climate? Those who believe that human arrogance is at the root of our climate crisis tend to believe that the remedy can be summarized in one word: less. Less consumption and waste, less traveling, less material stuff, less globalization and trade, perhaps also less people. We have to trace back our steps and regain a state of harmony with nature again. Instead of cherishing “fairy tales of endless economic growth”, as Greta Thunberg put it, we should start thinking about de-growth. The main trouble with this worldview, which is still the dominant one in the climate movement, is not just that it hankers after an original state of harmony with nature that never existed, or that it neglects the immense benefits brought by fossil fuels. It is that, ironically, it fails to realize the true magnitude of our climate mission. Our long-term goal, as laid down in the Paris climate agreement, is not just to mitigate our emissions somewhat, but to bring them down all the way to zero. All this should happen within half a century and in the teeth of growing population levels and sharply increasing demands for energy, especially in developing countries. By doing less of everything and increasing our energy efficiency, we can surely cut down our greenhouse emissions somewhat, but we will never manage to cancel them altogether. Even someone who abides by all the latest rules of an eco-friendly lifestyle—eating strictly vegan, never flying, always buying local—will still be responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, for the simple reason that fossil fuels are literally everywhere: in steel and aluminum, in plastics and paper, in cement and artificial fertilizer, in housing and agriculture. Eight billion people living like climate saints would still produce billions of tons of carbon dioxide every year.

Here’s the nub of the problem. Fossil fuels deliver a range of important services to humanity, which have historically been responsible for the unprecedented levels of wealth and prosperity we are enjoying today. So the challenge before us is to find carbon-neutral alternatives for these services, which deliver all of the benefits without the costs. This means that we need technological solutions in aviation, in agriculture, in steel production and the cement industry, and in virtually every other economic sector. Most climate activists, to be sure, are not averse to technological innovation per se (except for a few stray Luddites and back-to-nature radicals). But here again, the trouble is that they will only accept technologies that fit a certain profile: renewable, small-scale, circular, sustainable, local. It Is the illusion of living in “harmony with nature” all over again. Poster-child examples of such technologies are solar panels and wind turbines, since these technologies harness natural energy freely provided by nature, and because they are—or are perceived as—small, decentralized, and self-sufficient.

Alas, despite huge investments in solar and wind, both of these energy sources jointly account for about one percent of global energy production. We can expect their share to grow in the coming years and decades, but eventually the technology will run up against the laws of physics. The energy density of solar and wind is much lower than that of fossil fuels, which means that you need to use far more land and raw materials (steel, concrete, rare earths) to produce a given amount of energy, which is not exactly eco-friendly. On top of that, the sun is not always shining and the wind is not always blowing. Renewable enthusiasts often cite the constantly falling costs of these technologies per kilowatt-hour, which are indeed impressive, but as long as we haven’t solved the intermittency problem those figures count for little. Our modern economies also need electricity during longer winter nights and on cloudy windless days, and the much-hoped for revolution in energy storage is not yet visible on the horizon. In sum, those who believe that the world economy as a whole can switch to renewables by 2050 are simply deluding themselves.

In a recent essay called The Empty Radicalism of the Climate Apocalypse, the environmentalist Ted Nordhaus has argued that there is an enormous discrepancy between the apocalyptic rhetoric of climate activists – “the world is going to end in 12 years” – and the modest proposals and half-baked solutions that they are proposing to remedy the problem. Take the much-touted and much-maligned Green New Deal. According to Nordhaus, even if the U.S. were to fully roll out this program, and even if other countries would follow suit, we wouldn’t even get close to reaching our ultimate goal of zero emissions.

It gets worse, because the technological solutions that are truly effective for tackling our climate crisis are often exactly the ones that are denounced and opposed by climate activists. Take electricity production again, which accounts for 25% of global emissions (and potentially much more if we start electrifying cars and other things). If our goal is ‘deep decarbonization’, by far the most effective way to get there is nuclear energy, as Joshua Goldstein and Steffan Qvist argue in their book A Bright Future. Nuclear reactors generate huge amounts of electricity on tiny land surfaces while emitting not a single gram of CO2 (small amounts of CO2 are emitted for building the actual plants and mining the materials, but this is true of every energy source including solar and wind). Unlike renewables, nuclear plants also supply power round the clock, regardless of weather conditions. The energy density of uranium is three million times higher than that of coal or oil, which is in turn many times higher than solar and wind, which means that nuclear plants also produce far lower volumes of waste. Future reactor types promise to increase energy efficiency further still, as well as to recycle and harvest the fissile material currently treated as ‘waste’. In addition, despite everything you’ve been hearing in the news, nuclear energy is the safest and least pollutingenergy source in the world. The only countries that have thus far managed to decarbonize their electricity sector, such as France and Sweden, did so by relying heavily on nuclear power (and they weren’t even doing it on purpose, as climate change was not on the agenda back then).

It might seem bizarre that environmentalists are staunchly opposed today – as indeed they have been for several decades – to a technology that has such great potential as a remedy for global warming. However, if you believe that technological hubris is the root of all environmental evil, it is not surprising that you would also turn your nose up at nuclear energy. From an environmentalist’s perspective, splitting the building blocks of the universe inside high-tech reactors looks like the pinnacle of Promethean pride, and trying to save the climate with nuclear power would be like extinguishing a fire with gasoline. For similar reasons, the green movement has been putting up a fierce fight against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for years, even though this technology too has numerous promising applications both for mitigating emissions and for adapting to global warming, including drought resistance, higher yields, enabling no-till agriculture, and reducing pesticide use. But tampering with DNA is tantamount to “playing God” and therefore off limits. It now looks as if the same story is now being repeated with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), the burgeoning technology for snatching CO2 molecules out of the air that have just been emitted by fossil plants and heavy industry. Greenpeace has already rejected the technologyout of hand, basically because they see it as a convenient excuse for maintaining the status quo and continuing capitalist extractivism. Climate sinners are expected to repent and mend their ways, rather than dreaming up far-fetched techno-utopian schemes to save their skins so as to allow the world to keep on burning fossil fuels.

The more I think about it, the more I’m starting to believe that the biggest obstacles to an effective climate policy are no longer the climate ‘skeptics’ who stubbornly deny that there’s a problem in the first place, but the activists who can only accept the half-baked ‘solutions’ that fit their preconceived ideology. (Or, worse, who use climate change merely as a cudgel to beat the real enemy, namely capitalism.) Frankly, they may come to regret this attitude. If we just keep messing around in the margins, while dismissing any truly effective climate solutions as ‘hubris’, we may eventually be forced to resort to remedies that are even more drastic.

Did you know that there is in fact a proven method for cranking down the earth’s thermostat? Here’s how it goes: you spray the stratosphere with substantial quantities of sulfate particles, which will reflect back some fraction of incoming sunlight and thus cool off the whole planet. Welcome to the world of geo-engineering, the artificial management of our planet. In a way this technology of “aerosol injection” is not even science fiction, because it’s exactly what volcanoes have been doing (intermittently) for millions of years. A large enough eruption will reflect back so much sunlight that the planet enters a new ice age. The trouble with ‘playing volcano’ is not that it is too expensive, but that it may be frighteningly cheap. If you have just a couple of billion dollars to spare, you can start with geo-engineering yourself, which is small potatoes compared to other climate measures.

Naturally, reflecting sunlight is not a structural solution to our climate crisis. For starters, it does nothing to remediate the acidification of our oceans, which is directly linked to CO2levels. In order for it to work, we will also have to keep spraying year after year, until we have removed the excess greenhouse gases from our atmosphere, or else global warming will kick back in with a vengeance, with even greater speed than we’re experiencing now. It is also quite difficult to predict local effects on weather and rainfall patterns, and with sulfur we may get nasty side effects like acid rain.

Until quite recently, public discussion of geo-engineering schemes was an unspeakable taboo, but that may change before long. Harvard University has already established a Solar Engineering Research Program, where scientists are now setting up small-scale outdoor experimentsto test the mechanism. In his book Facing Gaia, the French writer Bruno Latour – a postmodern critic of science who has found a second vocation as a climate activist – writes that people who consider geo-engineering should be put “into a straitjacket” before they do any foolish things. But those who shudder at a technological deus ex machina like solar radiation management should bear in mind that, if we don’t implement an ambitious solution in the next couple of decades, we may well run out of options and be left with only this emergency brake. In his recent book on climate change, philosopher Jonathan Symons imagines a future in which a coalition of developing countries – which everyone agrees will be hit hardest by climate change – resolves to start with solar radiation management, with or without the consent of the rest of the world. No straitjacket will hold them back then. If rich, industrialized countries don’t come up with a better solution in time, what moral right do we have to prevent developing nations from resorting to drastic measures?

Fossil fuels have been (and in developing countries still are) a great stepladder in the history of human progress. But now the time has come to kick this ladder away from under our feet. A task of such magnitude calls not for modesty and humility, but for thinking big and bold. As the environmentalist Mark Lynas wrote: “At this late stage, false humility is a more urgent danger than hubris.” Some cuts on travel and consumption will be necessary, but hardly sufficient. Regardless of what we do, global energy demands will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. If industrialized countries really want to make a difference, they should stop obsessing about their own short-term emission reductions and instead drastically increase their R&D budgets for clean energy innovation. Indeed, if you want to make an individual contribution, you can donate to the Clean Energy Innovation Program at ITIF, which, according to the Effective Altruism organization Let’s Fund, is currently the most effective way to combat climate change. Donating money to such programs will have a much bigger impact than any lifestyle changes you might consider making.

It’s simple: either we find some technological solutions to solve our climate problem, or we won’t solve it at all. People in the developing world urgently need their own industrial revolution (if only to protect them against the consequences of climate change), but this time it should not be powered by fossil fuels like the one we have enjoyed for the past two centuries. If we don’t want other countries to burn up those trillions of tons of coal and oil still under the ground, then we have to develop technological alternatives that are cheaper and less polluting while being at least equally reliable, and then to offer them for free.

This is something I think we can achieve, if we put our minds to it. It would not be the first time that human ingenuity has solved a problem that human ingenuity had thrown up in the first place (see: the hole in the ozone layer). In this unique moment in our planet’s history, we have species that is intelligent enough to care for other species and to keep the ecosystem in a state of balance. Whatever the Pope may claim, there isn’t any “higher instance than ourselves”, and we would be ill-advised to count on the existence of one. Homo sapiens is by far the highest form of intelligence in this remote corner of the cosmos. Well then: noblesse oblige. In the words of Stewart Brant, one of the founding father of modern environmentalism: “We are like gods, and we must become good at it.” And preferably not the kind of Biblical God who sweeps away his entire creation in a worldwide Flood, but responsible and intelligent gods who prove to be good stewards of the planet. But to achieve that, we have to show some healthy ambition and to throw off the shackles of ideology.
(Quillette, January 2, 2020)