Why greens don’t want to ‘solve’ climate change

Environmentalists are cagey about techno-fixes to climate change because berating mankind for its impact on nature is their raison d'être.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

Environmental activists and commentators frequently argue that climate change is the most pressing problem facing humanity, and that if we don’t do something about it the planet will burn up. Yet when planet-sized technological solutions to global warming – also known as ‘geo-engineering solutions’ – are put forward, environmentalists are the first to balk. ‘It will never work’, they say. Why are those who are most concerned about climate change also the most hostile to doing something serious to tackle it?

It isn’t just because such solutions would be ambitious, costly and distant in time; nor is it only because these solutions would carry risks. Rather, environmentalists tend to dismiss geo-engineering because, at root, they are not interested in halting climate change. For many today, both green activists and leading politicians, climate change is a moral and political issue rather than simply a practical problem. They see the ‘issue of climate change’ as a means to changing people’s behaviour and expectations, rather than simply as a byproduct of industrialisation that ought to be tackled by technological know-how. They are resistant to geo-engineering solutions because putting an end to climate change would rob them of their raison d’être.

On Sunday, the UK Observer reported that a forthcoming issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society will be devoted to geo-engineering, and that the Science Museum in London is opening an exhibition titled ‘Can Algae Save The World?’ (1). The Observer summarised six geo-engineering solutions that have been mooted, rating the chances of each succeeding from 1 to 5:

  1. Ocean pipes and pumps, bringing life forms from the depths to the surface, where they could absorb CO2. Chance of success: 3/5.
  2. Rocketing enough sulphur into the stratosphere for it to cool the planet by blocking the sun’s rays. Chance of success: 1/5.
  3. Doing much the same with giant mirrors, orbiting in space. Chance of success: 1/5.
  4. Seeding clouds to increase overall cloud cover from the sun by four per cent. Chance of success: 2/5.
  5. Building thousands of synthetic trees coated with materials that would absorb CO2. Chance of success: 4/5.
  6. Increasing the production of plankton and algae in the sea, which again would absorb more CO2. Chance of success: 2/5.

For all environmentalists’ enthusiasm for peer-reviewed climate science, they are enormously sceptical about human-created technology. The arbitrarily low ratings assigned to approaches 1 to 6 above are based on one-liner dismissals: the impact of ocean pumps on marine life, for example, could ‘count against’ them, and mirrors would be ‘incredibly expensive’. For sulphur and scheme 6, low ratings emerge, respectively, because the associated risks of acid rain and ozone depletion ‘will provoke opposition’, and because scheme 6 ‘faces considerable opposition’ over ‘potential’ damage to marine life. So, the existence, imagined or real, of opponents to geo-engineering is enough for its chances of success to be derided.

Yet it is not particular technologies that environmentalists hate, so much as the whole idea of human ingenuity – the conscious, designing, problem-solving capabilities that distinguish mankind from naturally occurring species. If, as environmentalists claim, mankind means waste and the reckless destruction of finite natural resources, then artificial constructions can only deserve varying degrees of ridicule – partly for the damage they will bring in tow, but mainly for their creators’ outrageous arrogance.

The Observer report began with the idea that geo-engineering technologies ‘are the ultimate technological fixes’. The phrase ‘technological fix’ has now replaced the earlier one, ‘technical fix’. ‘Technical fix’ was used to mean work-arounds, or engineering versions of a band-aid, which were used to solve problems but only temporarily. (In the world of software, such work-arounds are still called ‘patches’.) Today, ‘technological fix’ is uttered with a sneer: it is used to suggest that man-made technology can only ‘fix’ things for a short period of time and will fail to address the underlying problems facing the planet, which apparently are overproduction, overconsumption and too much development. The term ‘technological fix’ is used to denounce geo-engineering as flimsy and also to remind us of the real problem: mankind’s arrogance.

Some environmentalists argue that mankind is addicted to technology. As Nature pointed out in an excellent overview of recent debates: ‘Geo-engineering, many say, is a way to feed society’s addiction to fossil fuels. “It’s like a junkie figuring out new ways of stealing from his children”, says Meinrat Andreae, an atmospheric scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.’ (2) Environmentalists love the addiction metaphor for a reason: it portrays human beings in general, and especially male engineers, as unthinking automatons, or zombies. Indeed, as the Observer notes: ‘Opponents to such schemes [of geo-engineering] point out that it is technology that got mankind in its current fix. An even bigger dose of technology is therefore the last thing the planet needs.’ Note the use of the word ‘dose’.

In recent years, environmentalists have found fault with just about every technology devised or conjectured in the battle against global warming. Carbon-free nuclear fission? Radioactive waste makes it a non-starter. Carbon-free nuclear fusion? Its success has always been, and will forever remain, 30 years away. Biofuels? Growing them will increase food prices, and stomachs must come before cars (3). A tidal barrage for the Severn estuary in the UK or large hydroelectric dams in the Third World? The first will kill wildlife, the second will displace local inhabitants on a shocking scale (4). Wind power done at scale? It has ‘non-negligible’ impacts on climate and destroys the visual appearance of the countryside (5). Clean coal-fired power plants through carbon capture and storage? Clean coal is an oxymoron.

Even green supporters of geo-engineering only go out on a limb because of how badly mankind is supposed to have behaved towards nature in the past. Thus the Observer paraphrases the ecologist James Lovelock by saying that, with geo-engineering, ‘there are dangers in intervening but the risks posed by doing nothing are worse’. Indeed, some researchers support geo-engineering on the basis that it is now mankind’s ‘only hope’ of saving itself from the impact of climate change.

It is worth recalling that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for what that body is worth, believes that the world faces a rise of sea levels of between 18 and 59 centimetres by the year 2100 – and that if the Greenland ice sheet should ever melt, it will be in hundreds of years’ time (6). So is global warming really so bad, and the world doing so little about it already, that geo-engineering is our ‘only hope’? On both sides of the geo-engineering divide, green sentiment begins and ends with the idea that mankind is a risky disaster waiting to happen.

To its credit, the Observer did recognise that carbon capture and storage is likely to play a major role in the world’s battle against climate change, ‘though perhaps not in the form of synthetic trees’. But the argument it cited against such trees is technically very poor. Critics of synthetic trees, the Observer tells us, suggest that ‘engineers could end up expending more energy in capturing carbon dioxide than they would save’. In the same way, environmentalists always point out how much energy is needed to build a carbon-free nuclear power station, distribute biofuels around a country, or put up a carbon-free hydroelectric dam.

This argument – that trying to prevent climate change through technology will lead to more energy use – is skewed. The Earth’s unlimited supply of energy in a chaotic form contrasts strongly with human beings’ desire, need and ability to order energy to pursue tasks that are more and more intricate – tasks that include cutting pollutants such as CO2 (7). The main use of energy is to extract, refine, process and purify energy itself. In the same way, mankind will most probably need to expend a lot of energy, and even generate a lot of carbon, to build the low- or zero-carbon power sources, and also the carbon traps, of tomorrow.

For environmentalists, however, all technological initiatives against global warming that are large in scale – geo-engineering schemes and big-league renewable energy apparatus emphatically included – can only add to our problems: they use up energy, generate carbon, and, above all, speak of our refusal to bow down to nature in the humility that is required. As Ralph Cicerone, president of the US National Academy of Sciences and a Nobel Prize-winner, points out in a seminal issue of the journal Climatic Change devoted to geo-engineering: ‘A commonly held view is that commitment to geo-engineering would undercut human resolve to deal with the cause of the original problem, greenhouse gases in the case of climate change.’ (8) But why must geo-engineering necessarily add to the sum-total of human laziness? And why does Cicerone go on not just to advocate more research into it, which is fair enough, but also to recommend that scientists meet to call a moratorium on large scale experiments in it – a moratorium that, ‘in the minds of many’, could only end if ‘humans had done enough to limit greenhouse gas emissions’? The implication is that humans must first suffer, by cutting back on consumption and energy-use, before we can at least try to fix the problems of pollution. This gets to the nub of environmentalists’ hostility towards geo-engineering.

Environmentalists instinctively reject or ignore technological solutions to global warming because they are bent on making people atone for their sins. Their ridicule of geo-engineering reveals that, for them, climate change is a moral tale about humanity’s greed and arrogance, where the happy ending is a much-reduced human population where everyone lives simply and meekly. As one contributor to Climatic Change puts it: ‘I feel we would be taking on the ultimate state of hubris to believe we can control Earth.’ (9) However, even without inadvertent, man-made climate change, and even without complete knowledge of how the Earth’s climate works, the aspiration to control the weather consciously, for the betterment of humanity, is a noble one. Moreover though technological experiments – of any sort – can always be dangerous, they will be required if climate control is ever to get anywhere.

Geo-engineering should not be a last-ditch bid for survival, but rather an expression of humanising the Earth. And tests of geo-engineering technologies will be essential, one day, if the potential of these technologies is ever to move from the world of research to the world of practical benefits. Those of us who see pollution as a problem to be solved, rather than as a stick with which to beat down people’s horizons, should call for more grand experimentation in the area of climate control.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation, De Montfort University. Visit his website at He is speaking at the session London 2012 at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi said environmentalism was a really bad idea and questioned whether religion was now in search of eco-salvation. Josie Appleton argued that we should bin the moral fable of climate change, measured the political temperature and talked of unleashing nature’s terror. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

(1) Can science really save the world?, The Observer, 7 October 2007

(2) ‘Is this what it takes to save the world?’, Nature, Vol 447, 10 May 2007, p132

(3) Biofuel Watch

(4) Tide power plan is “wrong option”, BBC News, 1 October 2007

(5) The influence of large-scale wind power on global climate, David W Keith and others, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, vol 101, no 46, 16 November 2004

(6) See A man-made morality tale, by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky, 5 February 2007

(7) For more on this point, see The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy, Peter W Huber and Mark P Mills, Basic Books, 2005, pp xxiii, 144 and Chapter 9, ‘Insatiable demand’.

(8) ‘Geoengineering: encouraging research and overseeing implementation’, Ralph Cicerone, Climatic Change, Vol 77, August 2006

(9) ‘Geoengineering climate change: treating the symptom over the cause?: An editorial comment’, Jeffrey Kiehl, Climatic Change, Vol 77, August 2006

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Topics Science & Tech


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