The tech bros are coming. How should climate activists deal with them?

Karl Burkart
Apr 6 · 6 min read

Are you spending sleepless nights thinking about the apocalyptic future your families will face due to climate change, sea level rise, viral pandemics, and the collapse of the global food system? Don’t worry your pretty little head about it… the tech bros are coming!

This is part 3 in my series on the narrative challenges faced by the climate movement. In some ways, this is the challenge that worries me the most. But back in the day, in 2008 when I wrote my first blog about climate geoengineering, it was little more than a folly, a thought experiment about the extreme lengths to which we might have to go if we were unable to limit global warming to 1.5°C. The sexy solution du jour was the idea of wrapping the Earth’s atmosphere in trillions of mirror fragments to reflect away solar radiation.

Disco mirror ball.

You chuckle, but fast forward to 2021, and on any given day in any number of Clubhouse rooms, Zoom webinars, or Youtube hype videos, we hear tech bro luminaries promoting long shot “innovative solutions” to fight climate change — from Bill Gates’ air capture machines and Elon Musk’s $100M Carbon XPrize, to Robert Downey Jr’s climate robots and Harvard professor David Keith’s solar geoengineering chemicals. Even ExxonMobil is getting in the game, rolling out what seems to be its new business model: heating up the planet by burning more fossil fuels, while offering the world a new Global Thermostat service. What could possibly go wrong?

In 2021, carbon capture and climate geoengineering technologies have been mainstreamed. This is the culmination of a decades-long PR campaign led by the fossil fuel industry to greenwash its offerings — remember Clean Coal? But this time, in an age absolutely obsessed with novel technologies and the billionaire entrepreneurs behind them, it looks like the industry finally won. The tech bros, perhaps inadvertently, have given it exactly what it wanted — a scintillating smoke screen to buy a bit more time of government-subsidized fossil fuel profiteering.

All of these efforts, every single one, envisions a new trillion-dollar industry that allows us to have our cake and eat it too — we can keep mining, drilling, refining, and polluting while claiming these activities are “carbon neutral.” These mid-bogglingly expensive technologies get almost unlimited press coverage, whilst frumpy ol’ renewables — the true climate solution — hardly get noted. The one thing no one seems to want to talk about is the absolutely staggering drop in the cost of renewable energy. Solar PV and onshore wind power is now cheaper per kilowatt-hour than nearly all coal or gas plants in operation (6 cents per KWh on average).

Source: Global Renewables Outlook, IRENA 2020

Even if someone was to come up with a way to make air carbon capture (ACC), carbon capture & storage (CCS), or solar radiation management (SRM) affordable, those technologies would never be cheaper than deploying renewables at scale. There simply is no viable business model for novel technologies that remove carbon either from the atmosphere or directly from the smokestack. But we’re all suckers for silver bullets. So like it or not, the climate movement has to contend with the arrival of this third great challenge:

Narratives around novel climate technologies that are “just around the corner” directly work against the central objective of the climate movement — to end the use of fossil fuels, period.

Before I dive into a discussion on how we might contend with the tech bros, I need to make a confession..

I’m a self-admitted technophile and might be defined by some as a tech bro myself. I spent the first part of my career in the Bay Area as an architect working on advanced building-integrated energy systems, and I believe deeply in the almost unlimited power of human ingenuity to solve the most vexing of problems. In my youth, after hearing about the pioneering work of physicist Henrich Hora, I considered going into the then-nascent field of nuclear fusion, and I keep hoping the tech bros will deliver. They haven’t, yet..

Just last year, Hora’s company HB11 filed numerous patents on a technology that promises to deliver fusion power without extreme temperatures. So I’m optimistic that in 20 or 30 years, should our civilization manage to survive that long, we may actually have safe, affordable nuclear fusion, at which point we can power lots of carbon capture machines, removing sufficient greenhouse gases to bring our climate system back into balance. But that will be a story written by our children’s children.

Physicist Heinrich Hora in the University of New South Wales photonics and opto-electronics laboratory, Sydney. Credit: Britta Campion

Should wealthy venture capitalists be investing today in the high-stakes climate technology game? Sure, go for it! Buy a bunch of bitcoin while you’re at it. But we shouldn’t be actively advocating for these technologies as viable climate solutions. We must, as a society, acknowledge the severity of the climate crisis on our doorsteps. We can’t wait 10 or 20 or 30 years for these technologies to mature. We need to act now, and that means we need to quadruple spending (from roughly $500 billion to $2 trillion annually) on affordable carbon-free technologies now, even though a lot of these technologies — solar, wind, geothermal — won’t make anyone tremendously wealthy.

So what do we do about all the hype the tech bros have whipped up for novel climate technologies?

First, arm yourselves with the facts. One Earth published a series of articles debunking the value proposition of air carbon capture (ACC) and other modes of geoengineering authored by leading experts, who help to dispel some of the myths around these shiny new toys. While you’re at it, brush up on your nuclear talking points. The two camps are closely related.

Second, reframe the future. I’ve found after many years of trying, that it’s pointless to fight people who believe deeply in technological salvation. Rather than taking a combative stance, it’s better to place these ideas within a shared vision of the future. Acknowledging the possibility that novel technologies, at some point, could be viable at scale is a good way to onboard people to a more pragmatic roadmap… let’s use the technologies we have now to achieve the 1.5°C goal, at which point breakthrough technologies can kick in, bringing us back to 1°C or even lower.

Third, get grounded in reality. Tens of millions of people are already being forcibly displaced due to climate change, and this will rapidly increase in the coming decade as we get closer and closer to the 1.5° tipping point. So ask this question: “Who benefits from the thousands of articles being written about the promise of geoengineering to solve climate change?” The answer is simple: Oil & Gas. As so many suffer, it is not the time to fall for smoke and mirrors.

So what is the solution? Before diving into an exploration of new narratives for the climate movement, let’s whip out our pencils and do a back-of-the-envelope budget for what’s actually needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C.