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Climate Change and Technology

Photograph Source: Andrewglaser – CC BY-SA 3.0

Climate change is one of a host of environmental ills for which technological solutions are being proposed. In fact, most of the proposed solutions exacerbate environmental ills in other dimensions such as species loss and mass extinction. This tendency of technological reasoning to ‘bleed’ from one dimension or axis to another— to cause unintended consequences, is a function of the structure of this type of reasoning.

Paradoxically, calls for analytical rigor tend to narrow the realm of scientific concern, thereby raising the range of unintended consequences. This paradox is internal to the structure of technological reasoning. In practical terms, the 2018 IPCC Report on climate change relies on dubious technology to produce ‘negative carbon emissions.’ This both distracts attention away from more plausible methods and it could wildly exacerbate mass extinction.

To illustrate the problem, industrial agriculture is a host of technological solutions to ‘problems’ of agriculture. These were narrowly defined and solved in isolation from one another. The result is monoculture planting dependent on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. The unintended consequences are species loss aggregating to mass extinction, the permanent destruction of farmland, contamination of lakes and streams and hypoxic dead zones in the ocean.

Technologies developed to solve one group of problems ended up creating other, potentially more damaging problems. This is how climate change and mass extinction came to be. Neither were the goals of the technologies that produced them. But they are undeniably their products. So, the burden of proof for the technologies that are being developed to solve climate change need to be held to a higher standard than simply solving the narrow problems they are intended to solve.

The broader conceptual problem is that capitalist modernity proceeds through technological views of the world. That is, the world is perceived to exist in distinct parts that obey rules that are both comprehensible and can be used to manipulate it. Anyone with eyes can tell you that the world has undergone a profound transformation in recent decades. The ‘science’ of climate change is a technological form of this observation.

For better or worse, science is used to delimit the realm of admissible arguments. People can and do perceive and argue environmental issues outside of it— drought stricken farmers in Honduras do, as do Andean peasants decrying the decline of the glaciers that provide them with drinking water. But the dominant form of description in the regions of power, those ‘that matter,’ is science, with its close cousin, technology.

‘Serious’ proposals for resolving environmental issues leap over the (Karl) Popperian observation that any statistical outcome can be undone by redefining the variables, to avail themselves of the scientific stature of technological reasoning. This is to make the point that what is rigorous argumentation in one dimension is ignorant delusion in another. Lest this read as ‘anti-science,’ Popper was trying to save science with the observation.

Three of the four scenarios to keep the rise in global temperatures at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius presented by the IPCC in their 2018 paper require ‘negative emissions’ technologies— methods of actively removing carbon from the atmosphere. Some of these, like reforestation, are superficially attractive to the environmentally inclined. The problems come both through the fine print and the focus on climate rather than the environment.

Back and forth around BECCs (Bio-Energy for Carbon Capture) and ‘renewable’ energy imply that technological problems will be solved with technological solutions. In a well-cited article for Science, Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters point out that biomass equivalent to ‘one to two times the area of India’ are implied in BECCs projections. India is a bit over 1.25 million square miles in area. Two Indias would be 2.5 million square miles.

This is land that would be managed— cleared, planted, ‘harvested,’ and replanted, with carbon captured and power distributed. The question of what biomass, e.g. corn versus say, oak trees, recalls the logic of monoculture planting— if ‘inefficiently’ dispersed, planting and harvesting cycles, processing and carbon capture become logistical nightmares. However, problems with ‘efficient’ planting—monoculture, lie at the heart of species loss and mass extinction.

Scale is important because the IPCC scenarios assume that robust carbon-capture technologies 1) exist, 2) can be immediately deployed, 3) will work as hypotheses, speculation and partial and / or small scale testing suggest, 4) at scale. For context, air bags in cars and trucks— stunningly simple by comparison, were in development for twenty years before they were deployed. ‘Missile defense,’ has been in the works for forty years, over $200 billion has been spent on it, and it can’t hit a slow-moving target whose location is known ahead of time.

Similar problems exist with renewable energy. Energy infrastructure exists, meaning that renewable energy will be in addition to it in terms of initial production. The mining, transportation and processing of inputs will require an increase in fossil fuel use until new renewable energy infrastructure is built. This infrastructure must be built out worldwide or renewable energy support systems will remain dependent on fossil fuels.

The question that isn’t being asked: what will the adverse consequences of these technologies be? Climate change and mass extinction weren’t even imagined as consequences of the technologies that produced them. And again, a central drawback of the technologies being developed to address climate change is that they will adversely impact species loss and mass extinction. If the ‘solution’ to climate change means a catastrophic loss of biodiversity, what is to be gained by implementing it?

But what if the problem with technology is conceptual? What if the approach to the world that it represents is fundamentally flawed? Climate change and mass extinction didn’t arise coincident with the ascent of technology. Industrial technology, or more precisely, industrialism, caused them. In agriculture, industrialization is causing more problems than it solves. Or put differently, the problems it solves are small while the problems it creates are potentially world ending. Forty percent of the food produced in the U.S. is thrown into the garbage. So why do we need efficiency?

Advocating for more technology is fundamentally different from claiming that ‘the problem of technology’ has been solved. In fact, even amongst leading academics at leading universities, the ‘problem of technology’ appears never to have occurred. It’s fine, A-Okay, etc. if ‘rigorous’ scientific analyses take it into account and decide it isn’t a factor. But that isn’t the case. They are rigorously ignorant of basic questions about what it is that technology actually ‘does.’

If we can safely assume that technologists aren’t climate science deniers, the climate science is that without 1) plausible programs based on 2) existing and proven technologies that scale to their IAMS (Integrated Assessment Models) input parameters 3) without exacerbating easily predictable ‘externalities’ like species loss and mass extinction, then they are thinking magically. Ideas like BECCs are related to industrial agriculture. How rigorous then is it to ignore mass extinction?

Mainstream proposals for a Green New Deal, BECCs and the like are likely to fail, in the sense of producing the catastrophic environmental outcomes they nominally seek to avoid, because they are conceptually flawed. The only successful IPCC scenario given known technologies is degrowth. This isn’t merely my assertion. The technologies that the three scenarios that don’t require degrowth are based on don’t exist.

And if they did exist, their folly would be painfully obvious for all to see. Resolving climate change by exacerbating mass extinction is folly. It is only being considered because it keeps ExxonMobil and Apple in business. But doing so is exactly, precisely and unambiguously what the technologists argue is the best way forward. Degrowth is going to happen. The question is: will it be planned or unplanned?

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Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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