The Side Effects of Playing God: Can technology end the climate crisis?

Climate changes Evidence and Causes ᶦ

When you make a mistake, the onus is on you to fix it. This is a lesson we are all taught as early as primary school, along with the classic ‘sharing is caring’ and ‘chew with your mouth closed’. Funnily enough, ‘don’t torch the ground you stand on’ wasn’t thrown in the mix but from the way humanity is heading, perhaps it is time it was. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased by more than 40% “with over half the increase occurring since 1970” and since 1900, “the global average surface temperature has increased by about 1ºC”, almost all of which caused by human activities.ᶦᶦ One thing is for certain, we innovated our way into this mess. The question remains—can we innovate our way out of it?

There are mixed reviews on what would happen if we ceased all greenhouse gas emissions. One view asserts “global warming would continue to happen for at least several more decades, if not centuries” as the planet slowly recovers; carbon dioxide would linger “in the atmosphere for hundreds of years”.ᶦᶦᶦ The other school of thought asserts if CO2 emissions are brought to a net of zero, “the warming will level off” and the climate “will stabilize within a decade or two” with little to no additional warming.ᶦᵛ Regardless of how long it ends up taking, it’s time we started exploring solutions. I will divide the solutions into three categories: what we as individuals can do, what larger corporate bodies can do, and what science may have no choice but to do.

The Consumer Role

Energy efficiency is the most publicly accessible solution to the climate crisis, and it comes down to simple consumer choices. The 2020 Global Energy and Climate Outlook report by JRC has stressed that “the switch from inefficient fossil fuel technologies to more-efficient electric ones” is half the solution and one which can be as easy as implementing the switch to “heat pumps in buildings and electric vehicles” on the road.ᵛ As the most accessible solution, reducing energy consumption also has value as the most effective solution, small-scale consumer choices

such as which refrigerator, washing machine, television, and lightbulbs you fill your homes with “have the potential to scale and significantly impact energy consumption”.ᵛᶦ

The Corporate Role

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that “between 100 billion and 1 trillion [tonnes] of CO2 would need to be removed this century”ᵛᶦᶦ, which has spurred experimentations by companies to capture CO2 and store them deep underground or underwater. However, according to a report from the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, there are only “19 facilities running such systems” and this is simply not enough to meet the emission reduction targets on time.ᵛᶦᶦᶦ The team of associates behind the Centre for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge (CCRC) are exploring prospective projects to mitigate the damage caused by human pollution. A significant research solution proposed by the CCRC is to refreeze the Earth’s poles to prevent “major ice sheets…from breaking off and causing sea levels to rise” by brightening the clouds above them via salt droplets to reflect the radiation outward,ᶦˣ as well as a commitment to a Net Zero goal by 2050 through emissions reduction and carbon sequestration.ˣ

Science’s Last Resort

Let me open this last section with a warning—using geoengineering to fix the climate crisis is an emergency measure and not to be considered with light optimism. Amidst the most advanced geoengineering developments in contemplation is a proposal to “stimulate a volcano eruption by filling the atmosphere with a million tonnes of sulphur dioxide each year to reflect the heat of the sun back into space”, which scientists have deemed a highly effective solution to offset global warming.ˣᶦ Here’s the kicker—it’s a temporary solution, which means this volcanic eruption would have to be stimulated repeatedly on a sporadic basis to prevent the temperature from bouncing back up. This exercise is reported by environmentalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert in Under a White Sky, where she reports the repeated eruptions could “at best,…buy a little time, but at worst could make life impossible for millions”, listing “[political] conflict, acid rain, ozone layer depletion, lower power generation from solar panels and an alteration of the spectrum of light so profound that the blue heavens would fade and leave us all living under a white sky”.ˣᶦᶦ In her impeccably-researched book, Kolbert interviews top innovators in the environmental sciences, some of which have told her “they hope their research will never be applied” and Kolbert herself has agreed that she regards such technologies “with a jaundiced eye and a degree of horror”.ˣᶦᶦᶦ

The conclusion is simple: either we embark on an immediate short-scale solution by each taking on the burden and responsibility of climate change or we strap in and prepare ourselves for decades of short-scale experimental solutions which will gradually become more intense and destructive until either humanity prevails in wiping out the crisis or the crisis prevails in wiping out humanity. To answer the question in the title: Yes, obviously technology can help end the climate crisis, but only if we use it to.

ᶦ Climate Change Evidence & Causes Update 2020: An overview from the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences (2020 edn) 2

ᶦᶦ Ibid 2

ᶦᶦᶦ NASA Earth Science Communications Team, Is it Too Late to Prevent Climate Change? (Global Climate Change, 24 March 2021) <> accessed 25 March 2021.

ᶦᵛ Bob Berwyn, ‘Many Scientists Now Say Global Warming Could Stop Relatively Quickly After Emissions Go to Zero’ Inside Climate News (New York, 3 January 2021) <> accessed 25 March 2021.

ᵛ European Commission Science Hub, Scientists list Four Key Actions to Halt Global Warming, (30 March 2020) <> accessed 25 March 2020

ᵛᶦ ‘‘Climate Change: Seven Technology Solutions that could Help Solve Crisis’, SkyNews (London, 11 September 2020) <> accessed 25 March 2021.

ᵛᶦᶦ Ajit Niranjan, ‘Climate solutions: Technologies to slow climate change’ DW Akademie (Berlin, 31 December 2019)<> accessed March 25 2021.

ᵛᶦᶦᶦ Ibid, 1.

ᶦˣ Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge, Briefing Document: The Importance of Climate Repair (1 June 2020) <> accessed 25 March 2021.

ˣ Ibid, 3.

ˣᶦ Jonathan Watts, ‘It is the Question of the Century: Will tech solve the climate crisis—or make it worse?: Interview’ The Guardian (London, 6 March 2021) <> accessed 11 March 202

ˣᶦᶦ Ibid, 1.

ˣᶦᶦᶦ Ibid., 1.

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