Bil McKibben

Can technology “solve” climate change?

The concept of techno-optimism was created by Marc Andreessen – an American billionaire who made his fortune by co-founding the web browser ‘Netscape Navigator’ in the 1990s.

Andreessen, defining his own concept, wrote, “We believe that there is no material problem – whether created by nature or by technology – that cannot be solved with more technology.”

Techno-optimism is espoused by many other billionaires like Andreessen, many of them are tech billionaires themselves. While a lot of money is made available for many different causes, billionaire climate philanthropy is controversial for a number of reasons.

Not only is the world’s richest one percent responsible for double the emissions of the poorest 50 percent of society, but some of the biggest inconsistencies are in the businesses that billionaires are involved with – as owners or consultants.

Take this for instance: In 2020 when Jeff Bezos, then the CEO of Amazon, announced the $10bn Bezos Earth Fund, his company emitted more than 60 million tonnes of carbon emissions, 15 percent more than in 2019.

Then there’s the technological spectacles driven by billionaires that suck up media attention to the detriment of so much else. An analysis by US-based Media Matters found that Jeff Bezos’ space flight in 2021 got as much morning show coverage in the United States in one day, as the climate crisis in all of 2020.

In all of the media blitz, one key point hardly got discussed: the reality that innovation, which has its value, cannot be a substitute for the fundamental change humanity needs to make by cutting consumption and slashing dependence on fossil fuels.

One tech solution being bankrolled by billionaires is carbon capture and storage (CCS).

INFO CCS (2)-1718881882

However, like so much of the climate tech solutionism that gets bandied about, CCS has been promoted with outsized promises of being transformative but has delivered barely a fraction of its purported benefits.

“I think this technical optimism is less about technology and more about how can we avoid making the profound changes that are necessary to the lifestyles of those of us who are responsible for the lion’s share of the problems that we face,” said Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change.

All these complex and expensive technologies are framed as being essential to avoid making the climate catastrophe worse. This is despite the fact that in 2020, renewable energy was the cheapest way to generate electricity around the planet – in fact, the cheapest way there’s ever been.

There are realistic ways to approach technology. A lot has changed for the better and that would be one of the strongest reasons for some level of techno-optimism.

“There’s a real reason for a certain kind of technological optimism. I mean, scientists and engineers have dropped the price of solar panels and wind turbines 90% in the last decade, and now the batteries to store that energy are going in the same curve.”

by Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org

The fundamental change the planet needs is a brake on fossil fuel extraction and use. And until that happens, no amount of carbon capture, solar geoengineering or whatever else is going to amount to the change we need at the speed we need it.

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