Can Climate Technology Slow Warming?By
David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth has been described by the peer-reviewed publication Nature as “Powerfully argued…a masterly analysis of why—with a world of solutions—we choose doom.”
The opening lines of the book assess the scope of global warming and offer a warning about the arrival of its consequences. “It is worse, much worse, than you think,” Wells writes, and about when it will arrive, he adds, “The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all.” Destruction from warming is neither remote nor is it just about sea levels and coastlines. Today, more than 10,000 people die each day from small-particulate pollution produced by burning carbon, heat deaths are increasing globally, and more than a fourth of the carbon emitted by humans ends up in the oceans, which “in the past 50 years, have absorbed 90% of global warming’s excess heat.” Without radical change, the seas will die.
And this situation isn’t unique. The planet has experienced five mass extinctions in the past, “each [one] so complete a wiping of the fossil record that it functioned as an evolutionary reset.” Four-hundred fifty million years ago, 86% of all species died, and the next four extinctions killed off 75%, 96%, 80%, and 75% of life. Only one of these events was caused by a dinosaur-destroying comet; the other four arose from climate change involving greenhouse gases. Wells argues that, today, we’re in the middle of Earth’s sixth extinction.
Our problem with comprehending the crisis, he explains, is because climate change is what the theorist Timothy Morton calls a hyperobject—“a conceptual fact so large and complex that, like the internet, it can never be properly comprehended.”
What’s more easily understood is the climate chaos that will result from unchecked warming of even a few degrees. Wells details in 12 separate chapters the terrors ahead, including droughts, famine, drowning, wildfires, extreme weather, dying oceans, unbreathable air, and more.
In 2016, the Paris Climate Accords established two degrees Celsius as a global goal for 2100. Wells estimates that the number will be more like 3.2 degrees “or about three times as much warming as the planet has seen since the beginning of industrialization—bringing the unthinkable collapse of the planet’s ice sheets not just into the realm of the real, but into the present.” The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have just 12 years to cut our emissions in half to meet the Paris goal.
IS THERE TIME?
The primary causes in our current warming result from familiar technologies—dirty fuels, agriculture, communication, and the desire to electrify anything that requires power. Some of the sources, though, are surprising. Making concrete, for instance, is the second-most carbon-intensive industry in the world today. Wells explains, “If the cement industry were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter.”
It’s obvious then, Wells writes, “Should anything save us, it will be technology.” And here the initial problem is that “the scale of the technological transformation required dwarfs any achievement that has emerged from Silicon Valley.”
Recently, the crisis has attracted more attention and effort. MIT Technology Review’s top 10 breakthrough technologies in the last three years have included lithium metal batteries to extend electric vehicle range, green hydrogen engines with zero-carbon emissions, advanced research in fusion power, iron-based batteries for solar, and advances in climate change attribution to understand extreme weather events tied to warming.
Other hopeful signs include a doubling of investment in climate technology over 2020 with start-ups attracting $40 billion across 600+ venture deals in 2021. A Tech Review year-end article notes that “momentum is beginning to build behind climate action.” It’s seen in plummeting costs for wind and solar and increases in electric vehicle sales estimated at 5.6 million new vehicles this year, further bolstered by the Bloomberg estimate that zero-emission vehicles will comprise 30% of all new sales for 2030. Researchers are working on carbon-free methods for making concrete and steel, and larger carbon extraction plants are being built to pull existing carbon out of the atmosphere. Much more is needed now from two technologies that are in their infancies, carbon extraction and geoengineering.
For now, the original UN climate panel estimate that was for possibly more than a five-degree-Celsius warming by 2100 has been revised back by the agency to somewhere between 2.1 degrees to 3.5 degrees.