Can we engineer our way out of the climate crisis?

By Philip Cafaro | 2 April 2024
The Overpopulation Project

Carbon capture facility under construction. (Image: SaskPower / Flick / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Many scientists excited to develop new geoengineering technologies say yes, as do capitalists who stand to profit by continuing with business as usual. But most of the commoners who will have to live with the messes left behind when technocrats fail say a resounding no.

Sunday’s New York Times included a lengthy article on climate geoengineering, the first of a series, titled “Can we engineer our way out of the climate crisis?” Reading it, I was struck by two things. First, the number of technofix experiments currently underway and the serious money behind some of them. Our capitalist overlords seem to have decided this is the path forward and, as usual, government efforts to control technologies for the common good seem to be seriously lagging.

Second, the inability of the reporter, David Gelles, to articulate the chief alternatives to geoengineering: limiting human numbers and per capita energy and materials use. Gelles quotes several authorities about potential dangers of relying on carbon capture and sequestration, rather than limiting carbon emissions directly. But he never straightforwardly discusses how limiting human economic demands can be part of dealing with the problem. So the debate just toggles back and forth, between taking existential risks to deal with climate change or letting climate change rip. That’s a false choice that ignores the moral demand climate change makes on us to face up to limits to growth.

Turning to comments on the article, however, my faith in the good sense of my fellow humans was restored. The overwhelming majority of them are critical: of the narrowness of the reporter’s analysis; of the failure to mention overpopulation as a major contributing factor to the problem; of the technological hubris of pretending we are wise enough to manage Earth’s fundamental biogeochemical systems.

Here are the two most popular comments, starting with the most “liked” of all of them, from Michael Collins of Vallejo, California:

We cannot engineer our way out of the climate crisis. The root of our climate crisis is socio-political.

All our economic systems assume continuous and never-ending growth within a finite world. That proposition is insane at face value; we’ve all been conditioned to accept it.

All of the world’s powerful and influential political cultures are rooted in the economics of patriarchy. Women must be coerced into having more children so that population growth can support our economic model.

The problem is socio-political, and therefore, the answer is socio-political. The world is finite, and we have pushed beyond its boundaries of sustainability, seriously damaging our biosphere. …

“LJ” from Oak Valley focuses even more centrally on population and calls climate change what it really is, ecological overshoot, writing:

Of course we will have to explore some of these technological options, but if the photos are meant to be a comfort they are not. These sprawling industrial monstrosities will chew up land and water. The workers will be housed in trailers and cheap apartments.

We will not make progress until we address the factor that corporate structures want us to ignore. That is the current rapid expansion of human population. We will be moving from 8 billion towards 9 billion in about the next 10 years.

Economists and demographers, and the business people and governments that fund them, are attempting to raise a false panic in the opposite direction in regards to a slight decrease in birth rate. Business people depend on never ending population growth for never ending profits.

Governments depend on never ending growth for the so-called demographic weapon, large masses of military age young people. This is an increased concern with the rapidly accelerating violence in a number of areas in our world. Xi wants every Chinese woman to have a few more children. Putin is calling for Russian women to have eight or more children for the motherland. And conservative men of power want to limit women’s reproductive choices in our own country [the United States].

We need to understand what is at stake in a world where we have reached earth overshoot. Understanding is the first step. Then advocacy and action, particularly for the increased availability of ethical family planning around the world.

Many commentators on the article are skeptical that new, unproven technologies can be deployed without disastrous unintended consequences. Others note the folly of shifting from free, natural systems that have sustained human beings for countless millennia, to costly, complicated, managed systems that are unproven. As “Skeptic” from New York puts it: “We already have a machine that pulls carbon dioxide out of the air. It is called a tree.”

DJt from northern California is also skeptical of technological fixes, seeing them correctly as an excuse for ignoring limits and not changing our behavior. He or she writes:

I think the author means “can we engineer our way to preserving the climate while continuing depraved gluttony?” We can engineer our way to preserving the climate with all sorts of existing technologies and the ability of humans to adapt to new diets, new patterns of living, simpler lives, etc. That itself is going to take an astounding amount of engineering AND behavioral change. If human behavior and ever-expanding gluttony is a given, the engineering must be applied to the atmosphere. Any effort in this regard is going to have a negative impact that will be found to cost 10X the cost of the engineering, and so on. …

Jack from New Mexico returns to population and the failure of the mass media to consider alternatives to endless growth, writing:

The only way to control climate and ecological degradation is to limit and reduce human population. You cannot say, let’s all drive electric vehicles and then cram another 10 billion people onto one tiny planet. Malthus was right, although too narrow in his focus. Any environment, including an entire planet, has a limited carrying capacity, and we humans, the species with the highest maintenance costs, have already exceeded our limits.

What this means is that we will need not only dynamic family planning protocols, but also a new way of thinking about economics that doesn’t rely on ever increasing consumer head counts. This is something The New York Times is in absolute denial about.

It would be great if future articles in the series were to take these criticisms on board and look more broadly at what needs to be done to deal with ecological overshoot. We’ll see!

Most of these comments spurred further comments in their turn, leading to a more comprehensive discussion of how to create sustainable societies than was found in the original article. For example, in response to Jack from New Mexico’s comment, “RocketScientist” from Munich wrote:

@Jack what’s easier, limiting people or limiting consumption? Which is moral?

To which Rebecca from the US replied:

@RocketScientist Both are doable and absolutely required. And I assume you aren’t implying that limiting people is immoral? If so, is this some kind of belief that humans don’t need to have any limits?

Here we touch on one of the reasons we started TOP six years ago. In fact, the environmental movement’s retreat from honest discussions about population has gone hand in hand with a retreat from grappling with limits more generally. The futility of this approach has been amply shown in recent decades, as humanity charges further into ecological overshoot and the possibility of disastrous climate change becomes a probability. But people, like the commenters on the article, are catching on. Who knows? In a few years, even apologists for the economic status quo like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal may be singing a new song.

Reprinted with permission from Frank Götmark – Project leader of The Overpopulation Project (TORP); Professor, Animal ecology and Conservation Biology, University of Gothenburg.

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