Cheating Our Way Out of Climate Consequences


Johan C. Faust, Christian März and Sian F. Henley via Wikipedia Commons

I had an interesting conversation recently. Whenever the long term consequences of climate change come up for discussion, a few distinct factions reliably make an appearance. The deniers of course, first to show up and loudest. But they aren’t alone in viewing the issue of climate change through a political lens.

Quieter but equally persistent is the eco-austerity crowd. These are people who view climate change as an opportunity to change society. Influenced by books like Ernest Callenbach’s “Ecotopia”, they regard the first world standard of living as decadent and obscene regardless of its effects on the environment, primarily because of how citizens of developing nations live by comparison. These are the people who were for electric cars until they turned against them, wanting everybody to bicycle instead.

Jacek Rużyczka, Wikipedia Commons

To this crowd, climate change is too useful a problem to solve. It’s a vehicle for changes they want to see in society, but also the human heart. This is generally why they’re anti-nuclear and promote a 100% renewables powered grid, precisely because it would force a reduction in energy consumption across the board. This would bring with it many politically desirable (for them) changes to how industry and the economy operate.

The potential for renewed nuclear energy development to render such sweeping changes unnecessary is a good example of how people’s political goals often butt up against uncooperative technological developments. Technology has no politics. The popular tendency to extrapolate world events in a manner consistent with our politics is a china shop that technology is the bull rampaging inside of.

It routinely changes the game, often in ways we find unjust, creating some new bullshit magical trapdoor out of situations you might think we’re obligated to solve through political and social means. There’s no need to morally grow as a species in order to meet the challenge of climate change if we can just summon a techno-genie out of nowhere to make the problem disappear.

KurtSchwitters, Wikipedia Commons

The context of the discussion was whether or not climate change would be an extinction event for humanity. For many people this is a veiled, symbolic question: To say that it won’t be an extinction level threat translates to “I’m a racist right wing religious Republican! Covid, climate change and evolution are hoaxes, I want to kill poor people”, reflexively interpreting the slightest hint of disagreement as the tip of a hidden iceberg. Extrapolating the worst possible scenario of what all personality flaws you may be hiding beneath the veneer of rational dissent.

That’s to some extent a result of how charged politics have become in this country, that people are hypersensitive to possible shibboleths, constantly on the verge of engaging partisan battle mode whenever they believe they’ve detected a member of the enemy tribe. But it’s also because caricatures are easier to argue against than human beings.

I made a few reassuring statements of political affirmation. Like that I voted for Biden, and Obama before him. That I support basic income, single payer healthcare, I’m not religious and so on, the standard ideological purity test required to dis-arm partisan battle mode so that productive discussion is possible.

NASA Ames Research Center, Wikipedia Commons

I then asked if we have the technology to colonize Mars. He answered earnestly that we do. So I asked, if we have the technology to colonize Mars, why not Earth as well? A warmer Earth, even in the worst case projections, is still much easier to survive on than Mars. This is logically correct, but not narratively correct: It diminishes the urgency of climate action, and so provokes eco-austerity proponents for reasons they do not always immediately realize, only knowing you’ve given them ouchy no-no feelings in their tum tums.

For multidimensional people, it can be simultaneously true that climate change is real, climate action is important, yet also that even the worst case scenarios of climate change don’t threaten the survival of humanity. So strong are the mental associations between climate related concepts and politics/morality that when I said the wealthy, at the very least, would have the means to create comfortable spaces insulated from the new conditions, he interpreted it to mean “billionaires will share these spaces with everybody”.

Of course I didn’t say any such thing and never labored under that misapprehension. But billionaires are humans. If they have the means to survive the worst possible projected climate change scenarios, then that logically means some of humanity survives. Thus, climate change is not an extinction level threat. That only means what it literally means, not any of the political connotations he or anybody else might attach to it.

Seattle City Council, Wikipedia Commons

So then we got into a discussion of whether it would indeed be only billionaires with the means to survive a ruined Earth. This also turned out to be contentious as his politics required the conclusion that billionaires are villains out to kill everybody. While certainly they will have the material means to endure a ruined Earth in greater comfort and safety than the rest of us, when has that not been true?

Unless all other buildings on Earth disappear, there already exists ample potential shelter from a warmer Earth, even in the event that the atmospheric composition is changed significantly by the disruption of the oceanic methane cycle. All this would really require is modification to the HVAC systems on buildings, and weatherization measures already underway. (double-layer windows, improved insulation, plugging air gaps to prevent gas exchange, etc.)

Gas scrubbers as an addition to HVAC, plus rooftop panels to offset the increased energy draw of beefed up AC, would solve most of the worst effects. Similar scrubbers could also be installed in cars, and wearable PAPR systems seem like a logical next step now that mask wearing is normalized.

In this way, the environmental changes resulting from a 3 degree average increase to atmospheric and oceanic temperatures would not threaten human survival except possibly for the homeless, and poor equatorial populations. If you can afford to live indoors, whoever owns the building will have the means to modify it so that you’re protected from changes to the atmosphere.

Ggia, Wikipedia Commons

This is not to say life will continue as usual. Consequences will be felt in other areas. For example steep increases to the cost of food due to agricultural disruption. The swamping of our borders by climate refugees we won’t have the option to turn away as it’ll never be brought to a vote. Resource wars and increasing income inequality will both have economic consequences that, as ever, will be felt most painfully by the lower and middle classes, insofar as a middle class will even exist by then.

That’s the nuance I meant. It’s unsatisfying to the sort of person who expects reality to conform to a political narrative however, under which mental circumstance anything that encourages climate action is true and good, while anything (even if true) which might make climate action appear less urgent is necessarily false and wicked. Only rarely, in reality, do the stars ever genuinely align in that way.

Does any of this mean climate action isn’t urgent? Again, no, but not for commonly believed reasons. What it does mean is that humanity will continue its frustrating tendency to cheat its way out of richly deserved consequences for our foolish short term thinking, by way of inexplicable nick-of-time technological innovation.

Most will breathe a sigh of relief, then go back to enjoying their Facebook and McDonalds, lives not meaningfully different except that their car is electric and they don’t go outside without a PAPR on. Eco-austerity types on the other hand will shake their impotent little fists at the sky, cursing that once again, the apolitical genie of technology has thwarted their grand vision for a more ethical and equitable future society.

The world we’re likely to age into instead is arguably worse than one which ends abruptly due to climate catastrophe. It’s a nightmare, surely, for what remains of humanity to struggle along on a half-dead Earth, propped up on life support, than to go out all at once. Yet solving those engineering challenges may facilitate the colonization of the Moon and Mars, bringing the topic full circle, as explored in this article.