Climate and environmental activists frequently complain how the technocentric approach to solving the climate crisis isn’t enough or isn’t good in some other way than “enough”. I agree that it is not enough. Policy probably plays an equally, if not more important role. Policy interventions are things you can do right away, while technological breakthroughs are not guaranteed. And while policy interventions may have unintended consequences, they are at least guaranteed in some way, while technology may - or may not - be developed.
Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive, and shouldn’t be seen this way. However asks you to stop developing seeds that can withstand a wider spectrum of temperatures, or cheap anti-frost systems, or glasshouses that can withstand hail, and instead join their banner-holding protest in front of a regulator or a megacorp is probably uninformed, and likely stupid. (If they ask you to go join the protest in addition to your technological work, then I don’t hold any judgment.) And naturally, the inverse is also true, but there’s something to say about the historical effectiveness of technological interventions. Namely: they have the capacity to start, while regulation only has the capacity to stop. Ok, if you pass sensible laws, you could in theory also incite but you can never start something through a law, only stop it. Therefore, technology is inherently proactive, while regulation is inherently reactive (and often regressive, as shown by multiple outdated regulations). Therefore I place much more weight on technocentric solutions of physical problems (such as the climate crisis) - it’s something that looks forwards. It’s long term, while regulation is often a short term patch.
So to say it in the simplest terms:
- not guaranteed
- takes a long time to create and adopt
- could also be very harmful
- solves the problem in a proactive, long-term way
- almost guaranteed
- quick to implement on a local scale
- ineffective when there’s a coordination problem
- can become outdated, but very difficult to get rid of at that point
- serves at best as a quick patch
With those two out of the way, I want to make an additional case for technology in the context of “solving” the climate crisis.
The climate crisis is a set of physical problems: droughts, extreme weather, very high and very low temperatures, and more. These events then have second-order consequences, for example famine, or political consequences. My take is that, wherever we are currently in the process of being crushed by hostile climate events, the time to work on technological solutions was always yesterday. And evidently the second best time is now.
- If we are just at the start of the climate crisis, the time to figure out technological solutions to the myriad problems posed by climate change is - now. We still have time, we could still do something, we can still adapt.
- If we are somewhere in the middle of the crisis, and the time for policy to verifiably stop it has passed, and we can only patch up damage (implying that things won’t ever return to “normal”), then the time for technological solutions is also… now. It’s evident: the optimal time window for regulatory action has passed, we missed the train, and the only thing that’s left before us is creating better tools, making better types of shelter, using better materials to build, growing more resilient seeds for food, and so on.
- If we’re at the end of the climate crisis (nobody actually believes it because civilization is still very much alive and well), then regulatory action is a long gone glimmer of hope. The only hope - however small it may be - is that someone will figure out a solution of a technological nature.
So whatever you think we should do - even if you think it’s all very early and we should focus on policy - you can at least appreciate that technological solutions are applicable, essentially, in every stage of the problem.
I want to say one final thing: “solving” the climate crisis is a muddled way to think about it. The “climate crisis” is a set of hundreds, if not thousands, of individual problems, that sometimes have a connection to one another. Here are some:
- food security
- water availability
- sufficient energy
- migratory crisis
- biodiversity loss (this might actually be a good thing if you’re a negative utilitarian)
- blistering heat
- extreme weather events
There are more, and even these few can be separated into many sub-problems, of which some will have sub-problems of their own. “Solving the climate crisis” doesn’t exist - there exists only the solving of individual problems, which are often engineering (and sometimes policy) endeavors.
You could argue that it would be great if we had a magic wand that we could simply wave and reduce our carbon emissions some 15 years ago (whether or not that would be a good thing from the perspective of economic and social development is another case entirely). You could argue that the next best thing to a magic wand is regulation. In that particular case, you would be right, regulation does work as a magic wand, but a very bad one. You can in fact just wave it around and make wide-affecting changes, but it’s particularly prone to backfiring and it also doesn’t work when other polities have wands of their own. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t regulate. In some cases, it’s absolutely certain that you should - that you must regulate.
But the whole point of my writing here is this: whether or not you have a magic wand that can locally stop/redirect economic development shouldn’t affect your decisions to invest in long-term, engineering solutions.