Can Global Warming Be Stopped by Technology Alone?

One of the themes in the comments over the last week has been the debate over technological advances vs. emissions reduction -- which one offers a better solution to global warming?

In an article in the new policy journal The American Interest (subscription required), Sen. Joseph Lieberman argues that creating market incentives through legislation to limit emissions accomplishes both goals. He points to the successful cap and trade system that governs sulfur dioxide pollution (the stuff behind acid rain.) As long as fines are high enough that it's more cost effective to comply than to risk emitting more than one's credits -- and glaring loopholes are closed so companies can't wriggle through to circumvent the restrictions -- the system works.

A thoughtful article (translated from German) appears in the Science Policy blog. The authors, prominent German scholars who've done a lot of writing on climate change-related issues, say that the question of whether the recent hurricanes are effects of global warming is best left to the scientists to debate, and climatologists should be trying to figure out how long it would take to see real results from massive worldwide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. (Here's a useful timeline of the last few years in climate change science and policy.)

The authors contend that the questions the rest of us should be pondering are: "How can we protect ourselves in the coming decades from extremes of weather like Hurricane Katrina, heat waves, floods and other extremes; and what should a climate policy that takes just this as its goal look like?"

One technological solution, which on first glance seems rather far-fetched, would be constructing a "space ring" around planet Earth. For some technologies that are viable right now and really could make a big dent in fuel usage -- such as alternative heating, cooling and electricity generation systems -- see Ilona's terrific post at Truegrit.

Mark Hertsgaard (who writes a lot about this subject) was saying in February what many more people are saying now: In order to protect ourselves in the short term, we need to "fortify emergency response capabilities worldwide, to shield or relocate vulnerable coastal communities and to prepare for increased migration flows by environmental refugees."

In a recent LiveOnline discussion, columnist Eugene Robinson answers a question from Princeton, N.J. with this admission that he is personally concerned about the possible effects of global warming on the intensity of hurricanes: "That's what I worry about -- that any little garden-variety hurricane that gets in there will turn into a monster. In reality, it won't happen every single time. But after reading those new studies, I'm convinced it's going to happen a lot more frequently. If we don't take this into account in rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, we're idiots -- and we'll be sorry when all the new houses and casinos and nudie bars that we build get washed away in a few years."

Debaters, any thoughts on how we can keep those houses and casinos and nudie bars intact?

By Emily Messner |  October 5, 2005; 11:33 AM ET  | Category:  Solutions
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One of the fundamental problems with this issue is fighting against human nature. We like to listen to people whose opinion we already respect or who say things that agree with what we think. So even if there is someone screaming something at the top of his lungs that something is wrong or that something is going to happen chances are that we are not going to listen as closely if we don't already respect their opinion. We often think too much in the short term, we probably won't get serious, as a nation, about global warming till it starts snowing in Hawaii. Then someone will say "hey maybe there is something to this whole global warming thing"

This seems to be a pattern of a "lets cross that bridge" kind of attitude that is prevalent among many of our leaders.

Here is the pattern that I have noticed.

1. Warnings of some event or disaster
2. Warnings taken to people of importance
3. Warnings ignored or placed on back burner
4. Disaster occurs
5. The "oh crap" moment arises when someone realized that they could have prepared better, or even prevented the disaster had they acted sooner.
6. Damage control in the form of an overwhelming response that requires ten times the manpower, time, and resources than it would have taken to prevent the initial disaster from happening in the first place.
7. Congressional/ Independent inquiry to discover what went wrong, or to determine who dropped the ball.
8. No one takes responsibility, those questioned blame others,
9. The report of findings is released, it's a story for a few more days after that then a college student goes missing, or Anna Nicole Smith's case goes to the supreme court, or some other thing happens and we forget about the details of the disaster and in the end all we remember is the just the response and not the inactions that lead to the disaster in the first place.

(Unconvinced? Compare the actions surrounding 9/11 and the Hurricane Katrina some surprising similarities....)

I don't know if the global warming "disaster" will follow this same pattern. But I imagine it will. Should we rebuild...yes I think it is in our nature not to run away from a challenge and to stand up again after being knocked down. But we have to do so under the attitude of preparing for problems before they occur. Look at Los Angeles, as part of the building code; it is a requirement for buildings to be able to withstand earthquakes of a certain magnitude. Would it be so hard to adopt a similar code when building in areas where hurricanes could cause severe damage? If such a code already exists then now might be a good time to reevaluate it. Can global warming be stopped by technology alone, no. It also requires us (and our leaders) to change the way we think. It must be difficult to determine which treats to listen to and which to ignore but something has to change. If we decide not to act then we may find that when it comes time "to cross that bridge," it may have already been swept away.

Posted by: Jay | October 5, 2005 02:03 PM

"Can global warming be stopped by technology alone?" This implies that global warming *can* be stopped. I believe that's an incorrect assumption. We've already put concentrations of CO2 into the atmosphere that far exceed any in measurable history. Those gases are going to be causing global warming for some time to come.

To me, the question is two-fold:

(1) Can technology alone reduce anthropocentric emission of CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) to a level consistent with pre-industrial society concentrations (i.e., can we stop things from getting worse?), and

(2) Can technology mitigate the damage we've already caused by the emissions we've produced (i.e., we're stuck with it - what can we do about it?)

I believe we can make great strides in addressing (2), but those strides may well be overcome by the effect of not addressing (1). I believe (1) is achievable, but it's going to take a lot more than "simple" technological development to make it happen. Technologies currently exist that could make the US economy significantly more energy-efficient without impact on our economic growth, yet those technologies aren't adopted? Why not? It's not the technologies themselves that stand in the way - it's the systems of practice, policital and socio-economic infrastructures, and cultural values that keep them from being adopted. It's going to be a long hard slog to change those, and things will continue to get worse in the mean time.

Posted by: Christopher | October 5, 2005 02:56 PM

I think this country has gone so off track with respect to anti-science, pro-fundamentalism, anti-government attitudes which result in the promoting the worst sorts of cronies to govt positions, that our govt is really incapable of dealing with reality, with real problems, such as global warming.

Our govt serves the short term interest of big corporations *only*. Our govt is on a short leash, and solutions to global warming would require initiative, independence and intellectual seriousness which are just beyond the pale.

I think only the deaths of millions of Americans, say in the bird flu, or the washing away of multiple cities, will restore some urgency to the question of how our government can *best* serve the people. As citizens, we've drunk the Kool-aid and we will pay the price sooner or later.

The deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, the deaths of thousands in 9/11 and the 1 thousand from Hurricane Katrina, the destruction of New Orleans - all this and there is no real sign of seriousness or change, only decay. What will it take?

I wonder whether these incredible spasms of governmental incompetence will in themselves trigger an international financial crisis, a loss of faith in the dollar, or the like.

Posted by: camille roy | October 5, 2005 03:04 PM

the bush administration talks about addressing climate change through technology. as usual, the answer for them is simple, one-dimensional, and little more than just a good sound bite. if they were truly committed to clean and renewable technologies they would emphasize ones that are realistic in today's market and do not depend on fossil fuels.
instead they focus on hydrogen and fuel cells whos economics are far away from being realistic and 'clean coal' technologies. while there is some promise that coal plants can be cleaner, coal is still a carbon heavy fuel that releases CO2.

it is true, however, that technology can help address climate change, but that technology mitigates global warming by reducing emissions. emissions reduction plans, like the cap-and-trade systems in kyoto and the recently announced northeast regional greenhouse gas initiative are effective market based methods to cap emissions. this does three things: 1) it becomes expensive to pollute 2) it is profitable to produce non-polluting sustainable energy 3) it spurs the technology market to produce new, non-polluting, and cost-effective solutions that will have competitive and realistic economics.

Posted by: sam | October 5, 2005 03:19 PM

The problem is human overpopulation. That is the root cause of global warming and oh so many of the dire problems we face.

Until we get that issue under control, we will not be addressing the underlying problem.

Posted by: Nate | October 5, 2005 03:33 PM

My profession is control systems engineer; this essentially requires describing time-varying physical phenomena in terms of differential equations, and then, solving those, deriving what are called extrapolations.
The future warming this procedure yields me incorporates unexpected results of our present climatic state as well as probable sociopolitical responses to what is going on.
My results are bleak.
We will inevitably produce the greatest ecological upset since the general dinosaur extinction; if we do not wipe out ourselves with these or resulting international hostility backlashes, we will at best go through an intense bottleneck. The major cause of our ecology-related mortality will be the relatively tiny temperate zone that will be left. That will also be the cause of international hostility over competition for intensely scarce food resources and fisheries.
I give us another few decades of palying patty-cake in our present Fools Paradise.

Posted by: O'Neil | October 5, 2005 04:05 PM

No one or few things will solve the problems of the world, of which global warming is one. If we wait until everyone agrees on what actions to take we are all doomed. Many of drive small cars, limit the size of families, impose on the environment as little as we can, in many ways urge others to do likewise. We must continue to do so, even if at the same time others drive gas guzzlers, build larger homes to house larger families or have larger families without larger homes, impose on the envionment as much as ever, and defy anyone to limit their over use of nature's bounty. Perhaps we can shame those persons into no longer being the problem and becoming part of the solution. We must use technology when it can provide reasonable help, even though there may not now be a single technological solution. It took awhile to create our mess and it will take awhile to get out. For cerain we must not delay starting out.

Posted by: Bubba | October 5, 2005 04:06 PM

Although I share the pessimistic view of many of the comments posted here, some current trends are at least worth noting. I think the cluelessness of the Bush Administration is leading many organizations, both within the US and without, to begin to ignore the Federal government. Look at what companies like GE, Shell, BP, and others are saying - check out the article in today's NYT about how the insurance industry is funding studies on global warming. Consider how many states now opt to follow California's lead, not the ostriches in DC.

Bush is so far out of the mainstream, that he's leading his party off a cliff, and business has decided not to follow. Intelligent people the world over, who are not blinded by an innate hatred of government, are beginning to take the problem seriously, and are reacting. No, I don't believe we can escape the consequences of our actions, there will be many more problems ahead. The inertia of climate change is enormous, so we're probably looking at a century or two before things get back to normal... but we must begin anyway. What other choice do we have, after all?

Posted by: Hillbilly | October 5, 2005 08:12 PM

Fossil fuels are finite. Nuclear has unresolvable elements of its supply/disposal chain.

Consequences will be experienced.

Society will become a sustainable one, when fossil fuels exhaust or become expensive enough that fossil fuels are only useful for capital goods, not for fuels, etc.

The question for us is how that happens.

I've heard estimates that our current energy planetary energy consumption (fuels exhausting to heat) is 10 times what a sustainable planet can permanently assimilate (emissions and supply).

That is a daunting task to get there.

The general principle that helps most, is "know thyself", including energy.

As anyone that's sought to reach a healthy weight after being overweight knows, to do so takes observing and knowing that what one consumes, is finite (not an abstraction, not insatiable), and the consequences are observable.

Socially, to consume 10% of current energy requires three things:

1. Improved technology
2. Utilization of capital and energy to accomplish multiple goals simultaneiously
3. Regional economic approaches rather than central/global.

The effects multiply. So, if one decreased their commuting miles by 1/2 by working closer to their home, shared the commute with 1 other person, and did so in a vehicle that got double the gas mileage; the result would be that that person consumed 1/8th of the energy involved in their former commute.

1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2.

Posted by: Richard Witty | October 5, 2005 10:06 PM

What I'm about to say is so unbelievable that I will cite two articles at the bottom of this letter.

The rising temperatures that are now melting the glaciers and ice sheets are caused by the greenhouse gases belched into the atmosphere years ago.

In other words, even in the unlikely event mankind would stop emitting greenhouse gasses into the air, we are locked into this global warming pattern for decades.

Furthermore, even in the unlikely event that the US would decrease their discharge of carbon dioxide, China and India (both with more than 4 times the population) will almost certainly continue to increase their emissions.

There are two catastrophic consequences of global warming-the acidification of the oceans and the halting of the Gulf Stream.

First, the oceans are now becoming more acidic due to the simple chemical reaction: water combined with carbon dioxide produces carbonic acid. As the oceans inevitably become more saturated with carbon dioxide, they will become even more acidic, killing most of the aquatic life.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution the oceans have absorbed an estimated half of the 800 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted, but acidification of the oceans will cripple the "lungs of the planet."

Second, the Gulf Stream is an ocean current that brings a estimated million billion watts of heat to the Northern Atlantic. It is powered by a "salt engine" south of Greenland that is threatened by desalinization caused by melting in the Arctic.

Already, the Gulf Stream is flowing 10% slower, and when it halts temperatures will dramatically fall, making agriculture extremely difficult in Europe and North America.

How can we prepare for the dying of the oceans, or an ice age in the US and Europe?

If we can't reasonably stop our carbon dioxide discharges or prepare for the consequences of global warming, I suggest we engage in environmental engineering to remove the excess carbon dioxide.

There are many forms of life on earth that naturally perform this task, but we are overwhelming their ability to cope.

I submit that the only reasonable course of action is to improve by about ten times the ability of nature to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and oceans. Biotechnology must be used to design genetically modified organisms that we will seed into the environment.

The alternative is catastrophe. We need that carbon dioxide removed yesterday, and it will only get worse-much worse.,12374,1403798,00.html,12243,1405900,00.html

Posted by: Brad Arnold | October 5, 2005 11:51 PM

Camille asks what will it take for our government to do something about global warming and then goes on to mention some things that should have awoken them but didn't.Then Camille hit the nail on the head.Money--there it is.When it is no longer profitable for the polluters to pollute then it will stop.Liberman is right; fine them so much that it would be cheaper to fix the problem then to pay the fine.For that we need a government with balls enough to stand up to the corporate giants that own them and say enough is enough.Stop killing the planet.WRITE YOUR REPRESENTATIVES FOLKS.Write them all and write them often about your concerns for our enviornment.When you go to other blogs ask the people on them to write.If we could get a massive writting movement going it could do some good and it certainly wouldn't hurt anything.

Posted by: busyhands | October 6, 2005 04:19 AM

Allow me to present the other side of the argument - well, not the opposing view so much as it is an explanation of why many people feel skeptical about the whole thing, even if they are otherwise environmentally conscious.

The entire problem with any news release regarding global warming (and believe me, there are many) is that there's not any actual proof. There's plenty of conjecture, loads of speculation, an awful lot of finger waggling, but in the end we're essentially asked to take the scientific community's word on the subject based entirely upon computer model projections.

I've been an avid computer user for over twenty years - I'm not comfortable entrusting our future welfare to the machinations of something that is by design about as reliable as my internet browser. There have been numerous attempts to make long-term weather predictions using the most detailed computer models possible, and thus far the success rate could most charitably be described as nonexistent.

What we need, it seems, is proof. Not anecdotal evidence along the lines of "Boy, that was some hurricane, eh?" but rather quantifiable fact that doesn't require us to take it on faith. Proof that our global climate is actually warming, proof that this warming is actually caused by man, and - most important - an actual plan to do something definite about it. Crippling our economies over some vague notion that it might help simply doesn't work for me.

I agree with busyhands that the driving force behind this kind of change is money - when consumer demand for clean technology increases (as, oddly enough, it is doing right now), we will have it. Blaming corporate America is fun, but in the end they only made all those SUVs because people started buying 'em. Seems to me that a far more productive approach to the problem of clean technology would not be to hobble the people you're trying to convince to produce it, but rather to increase the likelihood that they will be able to make a fat profit by selling it.

Posted by: Skepticism | October 7, 2005 02:00 PM

Kyoto protocol won't do a darn thing. Even if most countries reduce their emissions to the 1990 levels by 2012, it still won't matter. USA and China are the leading producers of GHGs and show no signs of wanting to reduce their emissions, therefore it won't even matter how much the rest of the world reduce their emissions by, because they'll still be a very high level no matter what. Global Warming cannot be stopped, it's time to start thinking of solutions to cope with it.

Posted by: Joe | January 10, 2006 06:01 AM

No!----- Well----- maybe.

Posted by: Lou | April 24, 2006 07:53 PM

Start watching for headlines that are more optimistic, such as these:


Albert Einstein provided the perfect scientific answer to Global Warming in 1905 with his paradigm, mass-to-energy equation, which is the key to unlocking all of the clean, cheap, environmentally friendly energy the inhabitants of Earth will ever need, without any pollution or waste stream, and with no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse emissions.

Even the super-powerful Energy Cartel will be unable to prevent millions of individuals around the World from freely switching to this abundant and everlasting Einsteinian cornucopia of "home-made energy," which will automatically reestablish Mother Nature as the exclusive controller of climate change.

Posted by: ROBERT MACELVAIN | July 16, 2006 10:52 AM

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