I am a proponent of technological, systemic changes to solve the climate crisis. I know that many people say our only path is through reducing consumption — with at least one arguing we must reduce our consumption by 70% while providing no guidance on how we would do that other than “use mass transit.” This is typical. There’s no guidance on how to reduce your heating and cooling needs by 70%. There’s no guidance on using 70% less laundry or eating 70% less food. There’s no program for getting everyone to participate other than the adoption of a supposedly benevolent, supposedly democratically-controlled, socialist dictatorship. “Poverty for all” is hardly a rallying cry.
The other opposition to systemic, technological solutions comes from those who are fatalistically giving up. They turn away and mock the crisis or they fade away into depressive inaction. The futility and overwhelm seem like just too much to handle.
Finally, there are the deniers and fossil fuel industry advocates. These folks are playing their hand to protect their own interests and investments. It is understandable — no one wants to see their investments wiped out. Yet given what their work is doing to the earth, it is also immoral. There will be no move to change the system from this group. Even those who give lip service to transitioning energy sources are doing so to defend the entrenched system. They will always put their own investments first.
This leaves us with the technologists, who I am hardily cheering for. The reason is simple: When the new technologies we need are simple, systemic, endemic, and ubiquitous, we will have the change we need to stop climate change. When all energy is generated from non-burning energy sources, we will eliminate greenhouse gases. Electric vehicles enable us to eliminate fuel burning. They don’t do this in and of themselves — they are part of a new system. First, you create and drive EVs, then you provide their energy from non-burning sources — in this case, solar, wind, hydro, or nuclear energy. Then, we do the same for electrifying industrial processes and heating and cooling buildings. As such a system gets built out, we get what we need.
But as my title suggests, there is a problem. Technology always has two components that are unaccounted for — unintended consequences and human error. Unintended consequences are pretty obvious after the fact. You could say that’s exactly why we have climate change at all. Human beings started burning fossil fuels to make life better, not to change the planet’s habitability. We had no idea. That’s the living definition of unintended consequences.
Similarly, solar has the question of what to do with spent panels. Wind power has the damage to birds. Nuclear has the waste. Hydro has the consequences of permanent flooding, and no idea what happens when we get either way too much or way too little water. Carbon capture and carbon sequestration have possible impacts we cannot even dream of.
Many will point out that all of these impacts also have potential technological solutions. We use those solutions to manage water levels behind dams, for example, or to manage nuclear waste. But this is where we get into the serious issues. People resist these decisions, and others say it has to do with political will. I submit that political will, however, has to do with something else — we can’t trust people to always make the best decisions. Human performance creates too much peril.
For example, the disaster most likely to come from nuclear waste will have its source in the same problems of other disasters — Exxon Valdez, Space Shuttle Challenger, Deep Horizons oil well, and others. It’s not that it is technologically impossible to ship oil safely, go into orbit and back safely, or drill for oil safely in the Gulf of Mexico; it’s that it is impossible to ensure that everyone always does everything correctly to keep it safe. Someone does something wrong or decides something incorrectly, and then you get a catastrophe. In most cases, it is catastrophic but local. For nuclear in particular, the impact may not be limited to its locality the way the others were. A bad decision on an O-ring cost several astronauts their lives on the Challenger. A similar bad decision on nuclear plant management could cost millions their lives.
I’m not arguing against nuclear anymore. I used to, but I think we need it to stop the rapidly deteriorating climate situation. It is a non-burning energy source, and it is inexpensive provided you manage it properly. I wish we didn’t need it, but we do.
Nuclear is a poster child for this problem, but the problem of human decisions making and management dogs all technology implementations. I used to consult corporate clients on the implementation of CRM and similar systems. The leading industry statistic for a long time was that about 72% of such implementations fail. It was almost never because the technology didn’t work — it was because of the people and how they used or managed it.
Solar has siting issues. Wind has the birds, the noise, and the blinking lights. Power lines have stray voltage, downed lines from storms, and possibly spark fires. Decisions on turning off parts of the grid in high-risk areas have life or death decisions — many of which have played out in California in recent years. Even though I have written about the political question in the form of NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) concerns, and even though I have documented along with others the advances in technology that are solving many problems, we need to be aware that human decisions are critical. Where and how we mine lithium, nickel, and cobalt matters. How we build and transport the wind turbines matters. How we manage a nuclear plant crisis, from a failed piece of gear to operating in a war zone, matters. The question we face is how to ensure that poor human performance doesn’t endanger everyone.
As we go forward into the uncharted waters of these technologies, we should do it realizing there are risks. But we can’t let the risks stop us because the risk of not acting is much worse. We can see from the summer of 2022 that the Earth is changing more rapidly and with more dire consequences than anyone predicted. It is urgent that we act, and it is also urgent that we act with care. The decisions people make about managing our solutions could determine the fate of us all.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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