Technological Fix: Turn Off and Back On Again

air filtersClimate change, hunger, disease, inequality, conflict. The list of problems facing humankind grows longer and more complex all the time. Emerging digital technologies may hold the answers to some of these and other challenges. But are people losing faith in what tech has to offer?”

~ Sean Fleming

For most, the surprise from the Fourth National Climate Assessment was not that the report showed climate change poses a catastrophic danger to the U. S., but that the Trump administration allowed the report to be released at all. It is damning to the administration, according to The Washington Post:

The report’s authors, who represent numerous federal agencies, say they are more certain than ever that climate change poses a severe threat to Americans’ health and pocketbooks, as well as to the country’s infrastructure and natural resources. And while it avoids policy recommendations, the report’s sense of urgency and alarm stands in stark contrast to the lack of any apparent plan from President Trump to tackle the problems, which, according to the government he runs, are increasingly dire.”

The President and a whole host of Republican climate change-deniers continue to ignore climate change. Some of this is, of course, due to their political and financial ties to the petroleum and coal industries, but it’s also possible that they are just too focused on the near term and not capable of thinking into the future, NIMTOO (not in my term of office) is real.

However, the impacts are not all off in the future, as The Washington Post notes,

The congressionally mandated document — the first of its kind issued during the Trump administration — details how climate-fueled disasters and other types of worrisome changes are becoming more commonplace throughout the country and how much worse they could become in the absence of efforts to combat global warming.”

Those of us who survived the ’60’s had an awesome experience with the boom of technology and what it could do to improve our lives. DuPont’s slogan, “Better living through chemistry”, actually held the promise of a better life (of course, by the end of the Vietnam War the slogan had been commandeered towards a different audience). Technology took us to the moon and brought us Tang. Automatic transmissions became more functional and popular in the ’60’s, easing the minds of teenagers and frustrated fathers across the highways. (And, yes, we got the Pet Rock.)

And then we started noticing the downside of technology — napalm, atomic weapons, thalidomide babies, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. While technology has continued to evolve, our faith in technology to solve our problems has wavered. Anti-vaxers have caused a resurgence in preventable childhood diseases. Our digital experiences are fraught with glitches and problems. “Turn it off and back on again” doesn’t always resolve the problem. Sean Fleming observes our declining faith in technology, “Innovators and tech brands need to focus their efforts on winning over the hearts and minds of consumers, while governments need to put in place frameworks to safeguard privacy and security.”

In an article addressing the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Elizabeth Kolbert ponders, “Is there still time to avoid runaway climate change? To a large degree, the answer depends on the feasibility of ‘negative emissions’ — techniques or technologies that suck CO2 out of the air.” She noted that technologies under consideration include techniques ranging from the low-tech — planting more trees — to the high-tech — developing machines to scrub CO2 from the sky.

We’ve made a lot of progress with wind and solar power, fracking and unconventional natural gas use, electric cars, and land-use options (such as reforestation and no-till agriculture). We are investigating direct air capture of CO2 (suck it out of the air and bury it or mineralize it), as well as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.

Elizabeth Kolbert quotes the IPCC Chair Stephen Pacala,

The U.S. has the natural gas, has the fantastic (CO2 storage) reservoir capacity, the pipeline infrastructure, has tremendous lands for wind and solar. We’ve got all of it. And so we could become the, or one of the, energy superpowers of the world.”

So, we have the technologies and we have the resources. The question is, do we have the will?

Additional Information:

Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney, Major Trump Administration Climate Report Says Damage is ‘Intensifying Across the Country’, November 23, 2018 The Washington Post

Sean Fleming, Digital Distrust: We’re Losing Faith in Technology to Solve the World’s Problems, October 31, 2018, World Economic Forum

Elizabeth Kolbert, Climate Solutions: Is It Feasible to Remove Enough CO2 from the Air?, November 15, 2018, YaleEnvironment360

U.S. Global Change Research Program, Fourth National Climate Assessment, November 23, 2018

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