As the effects of a warming climate intensify and a sense of impending catastrophe grows stronger, it’s becoming easier to give in to environmental despair. Having spent the past five years studying the Arctic and traveling around Greenland, I feel the pull as well.
Glaciers and sea ice are melting at an alarming rate; temperatures are rising at a steady clip. To make matters worse, the Trump administration’s recent efforts to ignore a fact-based, scientific approach — rejecting, for instance, the use of computer projections to assess how a warming world might look after 2040 — leads me to worry that climate denialism is moving from the scientific fringes to the institutional center.
Still, it’s worth considering that things may not be as bad as they appear. I say this with a full understanding that most indicators are pointing in the wrong direction. Yet I also feel we’re in danger of losing sight of two crucial and encouraging aspects of our predicament.
The first is the extraordinary value of the climate knowledge we’ve amassed over the past 100 years — a vast archive of data and wisdom that gives us a fine-grained understanding of how the planet is warming and how we can change the trajectory we’re on.
The second is the emergence of potential solutions, the products of a half-century of technological innovation, which may help us avert the worst impacts of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we continue to release into the atmosphere. (Last year carbon dioxide emissions were the highest ever recorded.)
Almost certainly, these tools, if used wisely, could keep global average temperatures from rising 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, from a preindustrial baseline. Even lesser levels of warming are probably hazardous, but that temperature is the point beyond which many scientists believe the planet will suffer irreversible impacts from extreme and dangerous warming.
Recently, the entrepreneur and technologist Saul Griffith undertook a study of energy consumption for the Department of Energy and concluded that, using the United States as an example, “decarbonization is not an unattainable ideal.” In fact, he surmised it would be far easier than one might think, given our wealth and technological know-how.
We don’t need to assume an attitude of fear and dread. Our scientific progress is a story of technological optimism, defined by an extraordinary sense of capability. It shows what might be built and gained in the coming decades, and not merely what could be lost.
First, let’s consider this: For all the terror and gloom that global warming portends, its discovery is one of the greatest achievements of modern science. Technology can now tell us everything from how many tons of ice were shed by the glaciers in Greenland over the past few years to how many millimeters the oceans rose. Indeed, almost every fact or idea that informs the climate debate, from the number of endangered species to the dangers of melting permafrost, results from countless scientists and engineers, working in the field and in laboratories, over the course of a century.
This knowledge derives not only from heroic human expeditions to tropics, oceans, icecaps and deserts, but also from exquisite orbiting satellites that constantly scrutinize natural systems and human impacts on those systems. We know how much we have to fix on this planet, because we’ve figured out how to measure just about everything.
In the past few years, some commentators have warned that modern society’s faith in technology has led to a mistaken belief that it will save the world. They embrace solutions that encourage widespread behavioral changes, like consuming less, traveling infrequently and adopting a plant-based diet. We’re likely to need both technological and personal transformations. But in the end, it’s technology that will save us, not only because it can but also because it will have to.
In many respects, technology is saving us already: by identifying the magnitude of the threat, providing the extraordinary computing power required to run climate models to predict the future, and enabling architects and engineers to design for resilience against tempestuous storms and encroaching seas.
Technology has made possible clean and efficient energy systems that wouldn’t have been achievable a few decades ago, including cheap solar panels, LED lighting and batteries for electric cars. We now have green buildings that reduce energy usage and an emerging class of solar cells known as perovskites that may greatly lower the costs of renewable energy, and we are developing techniques to produce concrete that absorbs carbon dioxide rather than emitting it.
There is even room for techno-skeptics. A movement for “natural climate solutions,” like planting vast forests and using agricultural methods that sequester carbon in the soil, will become increasingly important as technology in the form of “integrated assessment” computer models tells us how much this approach can mitigate warming trends.
In the coming years, moreover, our ability to improve technology will determine the viability of carbon capture techniques to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and the value (or danger) of injecting aerosols into the atmosphere to shade the sun, cool the earth and provide more time for a clean-energy transition.
The range of hypothetical geoengineering ideas for the Arctic is equally audacious. One is to use wind power in winter to pump water from the depths of the Arctic Ocean to the surface to thicken sea ice so that it is more resistant to melting. Sea ice is critical to cooling the planet, because it reflects sunlight that would otherwise be absorbed by the ocean, heating it. (The downside of this idea, which underscores the scope of the problem, is that 10 million windmills would be needed.)
Another idea is to geoengineer glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica to delay their melting. For instance, a 100-meter-high wall could be built across the five-kilometer-wide fjord in front of the Jakobshavn glacier in western Greenland to block the warm ocean currents that have been melting it. The glacier has contributed more to sea level rise than any other glacier in the Northern Hemisphere, though recently, that has slowed. There’s no proof yet this plan would work, and it would be hugely expensive. But as the idea’s proponents pointed out in the journal Nature, sea walls and flood defenses already cost tens of billions of dollars a year to build and maintain. “At this price, geoengineering is competitive,” they argued.
So, as much as we may be asking whether technology will save us, that’s the wrong question. The right question is: How will we use our current technologies — and our potential to develop new and better ones — to save ourselves?
Adopting a measure of technological optimism is not the same as adopting the blithe and complacent outlook of a techno-utopian. Neither is it to assume that we won’t suffer in the coming years from heat waves, storms and floods — or from elected officials who disregard the urgent need for action.
Rather, it’s to view 20th-century history as an accumulation of hard-won knowledge that arose from using our wits to understand the climate. It’s also to see that important technological and engineering achievements — developing mass transit systems, huge wind farms, even nuclear power plants — are possible when we choose to act, especially through our politics and policies.
Proof of this can be found in the most unlikely places. For the past few years I’ve been tracing the history of scientific discovery on the imperiled Greenland ice sheet. Greenland’s ice is so thick and so old that scientists can drill down and extract samples that contain evidence of what the environment was like thousands of years ago. With the help of lab instruments, researchers can reconstruct ancient temperatures and atmospheric conditions.
Amid the trace chemicals that turn up in the old ice, there is an unmistakable fingerprint of lead from a few thousand years ago — traces from silver smelters in Europe, during the height of the Roman Empire, which released lead into the air that was deposited on the icy surface of Greenland. In more recent records, we can see vestiges of the metal from the fumes of the early years of the Industrial Revolution and, later still, the residue from leaded gasoline.
But by the early 1990s, these traces had receded from Greenland’s snow and ice. That was after new regulations and new products — created over the opposition, incidentally, of fossil-fuel concerns — eliminated the lead that was poisoning us from gasoline.
And life went on as usual.
Think of that the next time dread creeps in. Without question, reducing carbon dioxide is a far bigger challenge than reducing lead, and the stakes are much higher. But we now have a deeper well of knowledge and considerably better technologies. Indeed, if we don’t deploy the resources we now wield, many years into the future our story of failure will simply be this: We understood the threat, we were very smart and exceedingly capable. We had money and we had tools. And we chose not to act.
Jon Gertner is the author of the forthcoming “The Ice at the End of the World.”