Technology, economy and global warming: what we can do to change things
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent alarming report silences the pseudo-scientific idiots who for years have denied the evidence and put humanity on track to catastrophe: we must change or face extinction. It’s like there’s a fire alarm ringing in the kitchen, and we’re asking if it’s real or a dream, if we should ignore it or whether we should find a way to turn it off, rather than putting out the fire that’s causing it. Global warming is no longer a distant threat to future generations: it’s already affecting the quality of life and the prospects of survival of life on the planet, unless they intend to die within a few years. To ignore it, to discuss it or to deny it is to waste precious time.
What can we do to help avoid this? Individual sacrifice poses a problem: nobody is prepared to trade in their comfort or quality of life if everybody else is doing nothing. Such an approach is not just hard, but possibly meaningless, one implies sacrifice and loss of competitiveness, while the other reflects the habits established over generations. However, there are some approaches that can help us make more coherent decisions regarding the magnitude of the problem:
Firstly, to understand that our current evolution is completely unsustainable. Stopping this implies ignoring the fundamental dogma of capitalism: economic growth. Most of what causes global warming is done in the name of the supposed need for economic growth at all costs. Alternative technologies to fossil fuels exist, but we don’t use them because it would shut down entire industries, boost unemployment and bring about multimillion-dollar losses for powerful companies. The blame here lies with our economists, who for decades have defended unsustainable economic growth at all costs. The planet, like everything, has its limits.
At the same time, we need to identify the economic activities with the potential to create value from the opportunities that global warming presents. As the evidence mounts, society needs to adapt and change its ideas, leading us hopefully to a turning point when we all reject products and services that generate CO2 emissions, replacing them with others that at the least do not contribute to the problem. We are possibly facing the most important paradigm shift in our history, and to think that this will not create opportunities for entrepreneurs and for those capable of understanding this is blind. The entrepreneurs of the future see global warming as an important opportunity, one capable of generating income in exchange for a net environmental improvement.
Second: technology helps. But it does so at its own pace: it is only possible to lower the cost of technology to make it competitive through economies of scale and learning. Tesla has practically achieved this: while many laugh at its production difficulties, as if it were easy to go from being a manufacturer with no experience in mass production to producing 80,000 vehicles each quarter, outselling consolidated brands such as Porsche, Mercedes Benz or BMW, becoming the best-selling American car in the United States, and doing so with a model that despite its price tag, is cheaper to run than its competitors and also much safer. Does this mean that we should all buy a Tesla? Obviously not, as much as anything because it’s not possible. But we must press all vehicle manufacturers to abandon the internal combustion engine and focus on electric vehicles, which in turn will bring radically down the cost of batteries. The million electric vehicles in circulation in the United States represent an important milestone, but we must go much further.
This means deciding that the last car we bought was actually that: the last, unless we have the means to go electric. Not buying a new car is the best way to pressure the automobile industry to change: we don’t really benefit from buying a new vehicle, but imagine what could be achieved if the car companies were forced to start manufacturing electric vehicles because nobody wants their dirty old diesel and gasoline models.
Once again technology is crucial: tremendous progress is being made with autonomous vehicles as they acquire more and more experience on the roads, convincing regulators to pass new laws to facilitate their spread. Start thinking about your quality of life when you are free from an underutilized car and when, in addition, cities have been redesigned to make them safe places to walk, ride a bicycle, use electric scooters or fleets of autonomous vehicles, free from the chaotic tyranny of the motor car. Visualize this, and then start lobbying your city or town hall: the sooner the better.
Transport contributes more than a third of emissions, but it’s not the only area where we need to act. Heating, air conditioning and the supply chain are responsible for a large part of emissions and there is much we can do here, from responsible consumption by buying locally produced goods to making our homes more energy efficient, as well as reducing the consumption of certain foods, such as meat, particularly beef, as well as flying less frequently. All this may generate alarm in the affected industries, but we have to accept that we have no alternatives.
Technology, again, can help. Progress is being made to methods to extract CO2 from the atmosphere to bury it and even used to fix certain materials when they break, offering the potential for a viable carbon economy with neutral or even negative emissions.
The end of coal could be in sight, although it will require piling more pressure on governments and politicians, not only to embarrass them for their short-sightedness, but to throw them out if they don’t change their ways. Climate change has to stop being a well-intentioned side issue and instead recognized as the most important, decisive and fundamental question we all face.
Change is possible. But we have to act fast, rather than waiting for a miracle: we have to understand what is happening, inform ourselves and make the right demands on the right people, even if we think these impinge on our individual freedoms, our comfort or force us to make sacrifices most us are not prepared to make yet. The fire alarm is ringing: we ignore it at our peril.