Meta-challenges of climate change

Climate change is the most difficult problem humanity has ever faced, because it doesn’t go away when civilizations die. We can’t start over and we can’t just move somewhere else. I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic, which is why I am expanding this blog to treat topics on technology and climate change. This makes sense because these two topics interact.

I was browsing through some books the other day and I found an interesting title:

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard the claim that fusion might hold the promise of turning the climate disaster around. For example, in The Guardian, Oscar Schwarz wrote an article entitled, Is nuclear fusion the answer to the climate crisis?

Actually, the above article is disappointing, because it only talks about the development of fusion, and does not say much at all about whether fusion could really help the climate if it were to exist. In my opinion, if an article is to have such a provocative and serious question, then it should attempt to provide an answer that goes beyond the kindergarten response of, “but…it’s technology!”

In fact, the only paragraph in that article relevant to the title of the article is this paragraph:

Researchers developing a nuclear fusion reactor that can generate more energy than it consumes have shown in a series of recent papers that their design should work, restoring optimism that this clean, limitless power source will help mitigate the climate crisis.

The key phrase in this article is “restoring the optimism”. Unfortunately, I am far less optimistic that nuclear power will be such a panacea. Of course, clean energy can help with some aspects of climate change because it could provide a cheap alternative to the use of fossil fuels, assuming it’s even cheap.

This is an example of what I call a meta-challenge in fighting climate change. The challenge itself is to find ways to end our reign of destruction on the climate. The meta-challenge is to examine how the very fabric of our society may be leading us towards things that look like solutions, but aren’t as good as they may seem.

Like I said, assuming nuclear power is feasible, it could be a great tool to fight climate change. On the other hand, it also has its downsides. For example, clean and cheap energy would make it much easier for human to expand into wild areas and destroy them. It would also allow us to develop even more technology that is likely to be so addictive that the majority of people would completely forget about the climate. Even if it doesn’t, cheap energy will make fossil fuels less valuable, thereby decreasing the demand for them and hence their price, so that they will still be burned at a slow and steady rate.

Of course, I am not saying that we shouldn’t develop nuclear fusion power. What I am saying is that we are too enthusiastic about new inventions and their potential to help because our global society is primed and trained to think that innovation is always good. Aside from being helpful, innovation is addictive, especially to scientists and engineers who develop it. In many cases, this addictiveness causes them to chase after innovations not because they are beneficial to society, but because they are fun to explore intellectually.

The meta-challenges of climate change are those challenges in our society that arise directly from the norms of our society, and we have a norm of endless growth. We can do anything, as long as we keep strengthening the economy. However, chances are, a truly impactful change will not involve strengthening the economy, but actually shrinking it. A lot of scientists and climate activists hope that we can find economic solutions to climate change by incentivizing actions that will reduce our impact on the climate, but I am much more suspicious that this is just playing into the hands of those that only care about economic growth.

We should be cautious.


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