Technological progress will not solve society’s environmental issues

INTRODUCTION

Arguably, climate change, and the environmental problems that will occur as a result, are the most pressing issues that humankind faces. The outcome of the COP21 climate talks in Paris in 2015 was hailed as a momentous deal, in which countries pledged, among other things, to cap emissions, and seek to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and below the two degrees which many scientists believe would be disastrous for the planet [Ref: Guardian].

Yet as the COP26 talks in Glasgow in 2021 showed, declaring the ambition to cut emissions and actually doing so are two different things. According to analysis by Climate Action Tracker in the run-up to the talks, the cuts promised by the world’s nations are too small to prevent 1.5 degrees warming – and countries aren’t keeping those promises anyway. [Ref: Washington Post]

If the world is off-track in keeping temperatures down, what is the best way forward? Some Environmentalists argue that we simply need to cut emissions, even if that makes life harder for us, and that it’s up to politicians to take a lead. Furthermore, because many countries won’t accept taking unilateral action, everyone must sign up to The Paris Agreement. [Ref: Paris Agreement] The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, said before COP26: ‘If we want real success, and not just a mirage, we need more ambition and more action. That will only be possible with a massive mobilisation of political will. And that requires trust among the key actors.’ [Ref: BBC News]

Those in favour of technological progress argue that we need far more radical thinking, and that even if ‘we had found cheap renewable energy technologies that could gradually replace all of the world’s coal plants… it still wouldn’t have solved climate change’. [Ref: IEEE Spectrum] As such, they argue that new means of producing and storing energy are what is needed. For these advocates of technological innovation, changing the technologies we use rather than making do with less is the answer.

That said, others are not convinced. Instead, they are critical of those who put their faith in technology and innovation as the answer to our environmental problems. One commentator, Giles Fraser, noting that this amounts to ‘an alibi for excess’, going on to state: ‘We have placed our faith in something called progress, in the untestable belief that things will always get better.’ [Ref: Guardian] While many assume there will be popular resistance to such measures, is one of the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic that people are willing to accept severe restraints on their freedom for the greater good? The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has said that ‘that no one hesitates to make very profound, brutal choices when it’s a matter of saving lives. It’s the same for climate risk.’ [Ref: FT]

So, should we embrace the promise of technological innovation to solve society’s environmental issues? Or in doing so, do we ignore the fact that we are responsible for the behaviour change that society needs to tackle climate change?

DEBATE IN CONTEXT

This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

The climate change conundrum

Central to the debate about climate change is the discussion about how best to reduce the rise in temperatures or even stop it altogether. Should we try to do this through reductions in emissions and behaviour change, or through technology and innovation?

Many supporters of technological progress now suggest that despite attempts at finding political solutions through international agreements, it is highly unlikely that these methods will reap meaningful rewards going forward. For instance, economist and commentator Will Hutton has observed that in the midst of the discussion on climate change, rapidly developing countries such as India want the same opportunities to grow their economies as Western countries did during industrialisation and will continue to burn coal unless there are alternatives that are as cost effective. As such, he adds that: ‘Prime Minister Modi is clear: if the choice is between poverty and climate change, India will choose the latter’, and so it is obvious that it will be ‘innovation that will save the planet. This is the blistering truth that should be written in neon in the skies.’ [Ref: Guardian]

However, others are critical of this approach, and accuse technology proponents of attempting to have their cake and eat it. They argue that we cannot continue to live the way that we do, and that it is our attitude towards growth and progress, and its impact on the environment, that needs to change. As environmentalist George Monbiot suggests: ‘We seem unable to face the fact that our utopia is also our dystopia; that production appears to be indistinguishable from destruction.’ [Ref: Guardian]

Is technological progress the answer?

For technology advocates: ‘It’s not true that we can’t solve big problems with technology; we can. We must.’ [Ref: Technology Review] And outlining the technological argument, science writer Leigh Phillips notes that: ‘Through technological advance, we can use less of something to produce the same amount, or replace one raw material with another. We didn’t “run out” of whale blubber. We replaced it with kerosene.’ [Ref: Guardian] The years 2015 to 2021 have been declared as the seven hottest on record [Ref: BBC News] however all ‘renewable’ energy – including wind, solar, hydro and biofuels – contributed just 13.8% of total primary energy supplies in 2020. [Ref: OECD], Proponents of technological solutions, therefore, suggest that global warming cannot be dealt with using today’s tools and mindset, they argue, instead, that we need to create some new ones.

From this perspective, humans have the potential to solve climate and environmental problems through technology and progress, as an Economist editorial argues: ‘The climate is changing because of extraordinary inventions like the steam turbine and internal combustion engine. The best way to cope is to keep inventing.’ [Ref: Economist] In this way, they dismiss environmentalist arguments, which suggest that ‘the best way to save the planet is to curtail human activity, whether in the form of breeding, building, burning or business’ [Ref: Telegraph], and instead posit the idea that the answer is not retreat and demodernisation, but innovation and radical solutions.

Ideas such as geoengineering [Ref: RT.com], which involves modifying the Earth’s environment, are being researched. For example, Dubai has looked at building an artificial mountain to increase rainfall to combat drought [Ref: Wonder of Science]. Climate commentator Bjorn Lomborg has argued that ‘as long as cutting emissions is expensive, leaders will talk a lot but do little’ so what is needed is ‘a much stronger focus on green energy research. If the world could develop green energy that was cheaper than fossil fuels, global warming would be solved.’ [Ref: Globe and Mail]

Less is more? The environmental case

Professor Clive Hamilton laments the notion that technological fixes can solve environmental problems, and suggests that the real reason why some are wedded to them is because it allows us to believe that nothing needs to change. ‘Technofixes – technical solutions to social problems – are appealing when we are unwilling to change ourselves and our social institutions’, he writes, adding that it is profound behavioural change that is needed instead of ‘unbridled techno-industrialism’, which illustrates ‘our unwillingness to change the way we live’. [Ref: Scientific American]

Furthermore, critics of technological fixes are suspicious of the idea posited by some Ecomodernists [Ref: Wikipedia] – that our actions, and modernity per se, are not the problem, and claim that these assertions represent ‘an illusion, created by the irrational accounting of our environmental impacts’. [Ref: Guardian] A key argument for opponents of technological answers to climate change is that we need to be realistic about what we can hope to do, because innovations that are put forward are often ‘emerging technologies, that are barely proven, yet to be successfully commercialised, or downright illusory’. [Ref: MIT Technology Review]

In a similar vein, further interrogating the argument that technology holds all of the answers, one writer opines that: ‘Climate change is an energy problem. Burning fossil fuels to produce electricity or heat is responsible for roughly half of global warming pollution… Changes are required not just in technology, but also in people’s behaviour.’ [Ref: Scientific American] Opponents also note that in this debate, technology is often used as a smokescreen for politicians to hide behind, allowing them to postpone making unpopular decisions that will actually help lower CO2 emissions. In an article titled ‘Prevarication won’t save the planet’, two researchers at Lancaster University say: ‘For 40 years, climate action has been delayed by technological promises. Contemporary promises are equally dangerous.’ [Ref: Science Daily]

With these arguments in mind, where does the balance lie? Are critics of technological progress right that the key to combatting environmental issues is behaviour change on a global scale, which may mean that aspects of life in industrial countries have to change? Or should we put our faith in radical, new technologies and innovation, because: ‘The end is not nigh, and we do not need to rein in industrial society. If anything, we must accelerate our modernity.’ [Ref: Guardian]

ESSENTIAL READING

It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

FOR

Why relying on new technology won’t save the planet
Science Daily 20 April 2020

Magical thinking about progress won’t save planet Earth
Giles Fraser Guardian 17 December 2015

Consume more, conserve more: sorry, but we just can’t do both
George Monbiot Guardian 24 November 2015

Geoengineering is not a solution to climate change
Clive Hamilton Scientific American 10 March 2015

AGAINST

Funding green research is the most effective way to tackle climate change
Bjorn Lomborg Globe and Mail 27 October 2021

Innovation will save our warming planet – so where is the investment?
Will Hutton Guardian 29 November 2015

Why eco-austerity won’t save us from climate change
Leigh Phillips Guardian 4 November 2015

What it would really take to reverse climate change
Ross Koningstein & David Fork IEEE Spectrum 14 November 2014

IN DEPTH

Why we can’t solve big problems: Has technology failed us?
Jason Pontin MIT Technology Review 24 October 2012

BACKGROUNDERS

Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Climate change solutions: The role of technology
Jack Miller House of Commons Library 24 June 2020

Funding clean technology is the way to avoid climate disaster
Bill Gates FT 31 October 2021

Fusion energy is a reason to be excited about the future
Umair Irfan Vox 6 January 2022

Can we save the planet by shrinking the economy?
Kelsey Piper Vox 3 August 2021

Why a healthy planet and a healthy economy go hand-in-hand
Cristiana Pasca Palmer World Economic Forum 16 January 2019

The real climate change challenge
Peter Sutoris Politico Europe 22 December 2021

How zero carbon buildings can save the world – and $20 billion
Ken Maher Fifth Estate 12 May 2016

Generation Anthropocene: How humans have altered the planet for ever
Robert Macfarlane Guardian 1 April 2016

Paris climate agreement rests on shaky technological foundations
Richard Martin MIT Technology Review 15 December 2015

These 10 technologies are most likely to help save planet Earth
Greg Nichols ZDnet 13 September 2019

Dark thoughts on Eco-modernism
Chris Smaje Dark Mountain Project 12 August 2015

We must learn to limit our excessive consumption
Observer 30 November 2014

Can technology save the world? Experts disagree
Claire Cain Miller New York Times 2 May 2014

The overpopulation myth
Fred Pearce Prospect Magazine March 2010

An ecomodernist manifesto
Ecomodernism.org April 2015

IN THE NEWS

Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Recap of COP26: key outcomes and what comes next
Environmental and Energy Study Institute 18 November 2021

Business leaders need to embrace technology’s role in the fight against climate change
Brian Cruver & Forbes Technology Council Forbes 22 December 2021

Boris Johnson’s £1 trillion Green Britain plan to fight climate change may not go far enough
David Wilcock Daily Mail 17 January 2022

Johnson’s political weakness leaves climate agenda at risk, say campaigners
Fiona Harvey Guardian 11 January 2022