Apocalyptic warnings about climate change — such as the U.S. Geological Survey-Cornell-University of Arizona report in 2014 that the American Southwest faced a significant risk of a 35-year “megadrought” — grow more plausible and terrifying each year as new global temperature records are set and massive wildfires come to seem normal.
Some scientists believe the planet may already be past the tipping point. “The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future,” a 2019 book by American journalist David Wallace-Wells, laid out the view that there is already so much carbon in the atmosphere that global disaster is inevitable. But Wallace-Wells also wrote that thanks to technological advances, “the solutions are obvious, and available” — referring to not just increasingly cheap green energy but to proposals to use “geoengineering.” For the uninitiated, geoengineering is the deliberate, large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system to slow or reverse climate change.
Unfortunately, a new controversy in Sweden shows once again the maddening nature of modern environmentalism. The same green groups that warn that climate change will worsen or ruin the lives of billions of people are opposed to using advanced technology to reduce the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, they insist the main solutions must be 1) a planetary abandonment of dirty fuels — even if that is effectively impossible because the world’s two most populous nations, China and India, embrace coal-burning power plants as essential to future economic growth — and 2) dramatic changes in how humans lead lives and consume natural resources.
The dispute in Sweden involves the proposal by a team of Harvard scientists to launch a scientific balloon in June from Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost town, to try to replicate the temperature-depressing effects seen from major volcanic eruptions. It is a matter of record that the mass emission of sulfur dioxide caused by the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo blast in 1991 lowered thermostats around the world. Many scientists have long contended that this sort of geoengineering is both less risky and much cheaper than other proposals.
Yet The Guardian reported last Monday that environmental groups including Greenpeace Sweden, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and Friends of the Earth Sweden have asked the Swedish government to block the tests to prevent the possible emergence of a “dangerous, unpredictable and unmanageable” technology.
Frank Keutsch, leader of the Harvard team, told the London newspaper, “The risk of not doing research on this outweighs the risk of doing this research. … Climate change is a problem of profound size and potentially profound impact on humanity. I think we should be considering all kinds of options because it’s unlikely that there is going to be a silver bullet that will fix everything.”
If you believe climate change is a profound threat to humanity, Keutsch’s argument should strike you as cogent and powerful. The atmospheric science professor offered to personally meet with concerned Swedish environmentalists to explain the importance of research on solar radiation management.
But it probably would be a waste of his time. Many green groups’ opposition to promising geoengineering technologies is not rooted in logic or science. It is rooted in a quasi-spiritual, righteous belief that humankind must pay a price for despoiling the world. As longtime journalist Joel Garreau wrote in 2010, “Environmentalism is progressively taking the social form of a religion and fulfilling some of the individual needs associated with religion, with major political and policy implications.”
Yet if environmentalism as a religion opposes attempts to save the planet because they don’t include enough suffering from humans, than it mutates into something different: a virtue-signaling death cult.
Yes, of course humanity should continue with its push for cleaner, more sustainable sources of energy.
Yes, of course people should think globally and then act locally to reduce their carbon footprints.
And, yes, it would seem like the opposite of karma if the humans who had fouled the Earth so badly over the past 200 years used new technology to avoid paying much of a price for their wanton behavior.
But wait a minute. As the debate has built in recent weeks over who should be vaccinated first for the pandemic, the argument that the goal should be to save the lives of as many people as possible has gained power — because it is obvious. So the most at-risk group, the elderly, now is the focus of vaccination campaigns.
When will it become obvious that the goal of efforts to address global warming should be to help as many people as possible? That an all-of-the-above response to this threat is necessary to limit coming human misery?
This is already obvious to some of us — those not in the thrall of gang green.
Chris Reed is the deputy editorial and opinion editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune. Twitter: @calwhine. Email: email@example.com.