Won't technology will help us to find ways to avoid or cope with the future environmental problems of climate change?
Many technologies already exist to help us but it is very unlikely that these, together with technologies yet to be developed, will be enough on their own. We also have to change ourselves, in our behaviour and expectations, to have an effect.
Whilst the maxim that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ does have a good historical basis, we must ask (given how serious the threat from climate change is) whether it would be sensible to rely alone on technological ‘silver bullets’ that don’t yet exist. So far, technology has helped us to extract oil almost as fast as we’ve consumed it and is providing new ways to find and extract it; likewise humanity has been able to innovate and increase food production to accommodate the world’s growing population. However, promising technologies can take longer to deliver than at first hoped, or worse, turn out not to be as useful as first thought. For example, nuclear fusion is still many years from providing a reliable source of energy, and possibly may never do so. But with climate change time is not on our side and the scientific consensus is that global greenhouse gas emissions from human activities need to be reduced sharply within a few years. We therefore need to act now, rather than wait to see if a technological solution emerges.
We may need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by enhancing natural sinks and creating artificial ones as well as by reducing our emissions. However, technology already exists that could produce the massive global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that are now required e.g. building insulation, low-energy vehicles and sources of renewable energy. The primary difficulties surround social issues of providing the political, institutional and individual will to implement these solutions.
A large part of the solution in developed countries is related to reductions in consumption – our society is currently driven by mass consumerism, advertising and the unsustainable expectations of, for example, an ever growing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that it engenders. In turn, changing people’s behaviour doesn’t require any technology whatsoever.
Finally, we would be taking a great risk by relying solely on technology to provide last-ditch solutions to save ourselves from dangerous climate change. To risk all on geoengineering solutions that interfere with the natural climate system would be very dangerous indeed. There is no single technology in sight that promises to solve the problem. For example, tests which have tried to enhance the biological capture of carbon dioxide in the oceans have so far proved to be ineffective.