New Internationalist

Climate change is no joke


The global theatre of climate change politics is starting to feel a bit like a sickening annual episode of déjàSad Clown painting  vu.

Another climate conference has come and gone which, yet again, wasted everyone’s time and amounted to precious little. The UN’s 18th plodding Conference of the Parties COP took place earlier this month in Qatar, currently the world’s highest per-capita emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. At roughly 50 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year, this is nearly three times what cheeseburger-eating, bumper-to-bumper-traffic-enduring Americans produce per head of population. After towering reams of reports, hours of speeches and the inevitable signing of the political napkin, the toothless annual agreement amounted to nothing other than a commitment for everyone to meet and come to an agreement again next year, in an annual ritual of procrastination.

While political progress continues to crawl along at a glacial pace, all signs indicate that the planet continues to warm faster than previous predictions had thought possible. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report last month pointing out that even if all countries met their emission reduction targets ‘under the strictest set of rules’, by 2020 we would still be emitting at least eight gigatonnes of greenhouse gases more per year above the figure which would cap the global temperature increase at 2ºC. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb, up from 40 gigatonnes a year in 2000 to 50.1 in 2010. It’s pretty clear, according to the World Bank, that we have a one in five chance of experiencing a 4ºC temperature increase globally, and the consequences will be dramatic.

Already, the markers of change are happening faster than anyone once thought possible. In September, Arctic sea ice shrank to its lowest size since recordings began and Arctic tundra is melting even faster than predicted, raising fears that a tipping point could be crossed if the sodden peatlands begin to release their carbon.

Yet pursuit of conventional dirty fuels continues unhindered. A staggering 1,200 coal-fired plants are slated for construction worldwide, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that coal will overtake oil as the world’s number-one energy source by 2017 – and that’s just your bog-standard conventional coal. With that supply in shrinking finite amounts, the race for shale gas, polar oil, tar sands and other emission-intensive residual fossil reserves continues apace.

It’s hard to feel anything but that the times change and the story stays the same. The following ‘solutions’ would be funny, if they weren’t so serious.

‘Solution’ #1 We can store carbon dioxide underground!

Geologists have been hard at work for decades on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too solution to greenhouse gas emissions. More than 1,000 coal-fired plants on the horizon? No problem! We’ll just flush the emissions underground. No muss, no fuss.

Now, there’s an even better benefit to the Faustian bargain. We can use the injected CO2 to flush out deep reserves of oil! Called Enhanced Oil Recovery, this use for CO2 will help us nab pockets of liquid oil that previously have been too expensive or too difficult to reach. With this new tool in our arsenal, we’ll be sure to really pursue renewable energy solutions like never before.

‘Solution’ #2 We could engineer the planet!

Geo-engineering ideas have always been good for a chuckle. Everyone laughed at the idea of putting giant mirrors into space. But, to be fair, very few people in the geo-engineering community take this idea seriously. They are far too expensive and, frankly, far too silly for any scientist or politician to consider. So, no giant space mirrors for now. But that doesn’t mean our intrepid species doesn’t have other plucky ideas up its sleeves that, even if never given credence, will make for a funny headline now and then – such as wrapping Greenland in a white blanket.

‘Solution’ #3 Or, we could engineer our babies!

No planetary scheme could be quite as entertaining as the idea that we could simply engineer our babies instead. S Matthew Liao of New York University and Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache of Oxford University suggested earlier this year that, if ‘ordinary behavioural and market solutions [are] not sufficient to mitigate climate change, we [could] consider a new kind of solution to climate change: human engineering’.

We could induce ‘pharmacological meat intolerance’ in our children, forcing them to feel nauseous if they ingest meat. Or we could genetically screen our children to be smaller. (Smaller people eat less food, require less fuel in their cars, need less fabric in their clothes and wear out their furniture more slowly.) And, for a nice hat-trick of enhancements, we could programme our children to have higher levels of empathy and altruism, by dosing them with the ‘cuddle chemical’ oxytocin. Cuddly, tiny, vegetarian eco-babies. What’s not to love?

‘Transhumanists’ have always been a bit adorable. Whether asserting that we could programme ourselves to live forever; should seek to improve ourselves by embedding our bodies with bits of computers; or that one day we will achieve an unimaginable level of super-intelligence by marrying our minds to technology, anything they put forward has the inevitable effect of inducing insurmountable giggles.

But the concept of actually modifying our own children is clearly crazy. Liao and his co-authors say so themselves: ‘Perhaps the most obvious objection to our suggestion is that human engineering solutions should be considered is: it’s a preposterous idea! … We are well aware that our proposal is outlandish, and we have made no attempt to avoid provoking this response. We wish to highlight that examining intuitively absurd or apparently drastic ideas can be an important learning experience.’

Indeed. The lesson we can perhaps take away: the fact that anyone is thinking about such a silly idea at all indicates just how out of control the entire situation has become. 

Illustration of sad clown by Erik Cleves Kristensen under a CC Licence

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