The scientific and industrial revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries marked the beginning of an era for the human race. Unlike anything that had been seen before, we were granted an enormous power that offered tremendous opportunities, but also entailed tremendous risks. Beginning in the mid-20th century with the creation of the atomic bomb and other weapons of mass destruction, the world has gradually began to realize that our technological prowess is a double-edged sword that may hold the solution for many of the problems that we face, but at the same time may lead to our downfall.
Today, we live in a world that is heavily dependent on science and technology: we cannot even begin to imagine how we could survive without things such as electricity, television, and the internet, yet we forget that for the vast majority of our species' existence, we didn't even have a word for "electricity", we simply didn't need it.
The extremely rapid explosion of technological development that our society has undergone has left us without time to fully figure out the long term consequences that our reliance on technology might have. In retrospect, it was probably inevitable.
The problem we face right now is that of climate change. And it is a big problem indeed. It is a byproduct of the remarkably fast importance that advanced technology acquired after the scientific and industrial revolutions; more specifically, it has to do with how we are producing the energy that allows our technological devices to work.
In this paper, I will provide an overview of the global warming problem, and explain exactly how it is a byproduct of the way our technological society works. I will explain how the way science is conducted has in a sense contributed to making the global warming problem harder to solve. I will proceed to describe how our society is based on companies that are depending more and more on technology in order to work, how these large technological systems are made of small parts that are connected to one another, and how we don't really lack the means to solve global warming, but the motivation. Finally, I will analyze the roots of the issue we are faced with, what we need to do to solve it in particular, and explain the importance these solutions have when thinking about the long term consequences.
The concept behind global warming is relatively simple. The Earth is constantly being hit by electromagnetic radiation emitted by the sun. These beams of energy reach the Earth's surface and are either absorbed or reflected by it. The reflected rays go back into space; the absorbed ones are reradiated by the surface in the form of infrared radiation, a fraction of which also goes back into space. The rest of this infrared radiation, however, is absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, increasing the thermal energy of the Earth and keeping it warm. This is known as the greenhouse effect, and contrary to popular opinion, it is absolutely necessary in order for advanced life forms such as us to evolve. Without the greenhouse effect, our planet would be way too cold for anything complex to live on it. The effect operates on the principle that certain gases that compose our atmosphere are transparent to certain kinds of electromagnetic wavelengths but opaque to others. In this case, the so-called greenhouse gases are transparent to most of the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the sun, but are opaque to waves of lower frequency such as the ones emitted by the Earth's surface. The most important greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide. An increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide would naturally lead to more infrared radiation trapped in the atmosphere, presumably increasing average global temperatures.
Ever since the industrial revolution, humans have been pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The reason for this, again, is simple. The technological devices we have developed over the last few centuries need an energy source to work. We found out early that a superb energy source were fossil fuels such as coal and oil, which can easily be made to produce energy by igniting them. Most of the energy produced by humans in history has come from these sources. Unfortunately, apart from producing energy when ignited, they also produce carbon dioxide. Even though the greenhouse properties of CO2 have been known for more than a century, scientists didn't believe, until recently, that our pumping of the gas into the atmosphere could produce noticeable effects in the planet's temperature over short periods of time. They had good reasons to believe this: the Earth is a huge place which has been around for billions of years; the evidence they were able to collect about the planet's evolution indicated that changes in the atmosphere and the entire ecosystem in general occurred gradually over time scales that ranged from thousands to millions of years; abrupt changes occurred very rarely, if ever. Only during more recent times have we come to realize that this happens much more often than we realize, and that we are able to influence the workings of our planetary ecosystem much more powerfully than we ever thought possible.
The principles that drive scientific research are simple; the natural world, in all its vastness, is not. During the first half of the 20th century it was widely agreed that we humans were insignificant from the Earth's point of view. It turns out this belief was wrong; evidence collected later created a paradigm shift in planetary science: it is now understood that abrupt changes in the Earth's climate are indeed possible, and have happened throughout the planet's history. Unfortunately, this false belief about how the Earth as a whole works in no way affected the success of scientists and engineers that were dedicating their lives to developing new technologies that would shape the world's future. Science is in this sense compartmentalized: false conclusions drawn in one area of research often do not affect other areas of the discipline at all. Society became more and more dependent on electricity, for instance, which is now central to the workings of any technological device being used. With society's increasing reliance on technology came society's increasing need for producing energy, and the easiest way to produce energy was by burning fossil fuels. And so it was that we reached a point in which the burning of fossil fuels was, in a sense, the basis of how our society works. To attempt to live without technology that directly or indirectly depends on the burning of fossil fuels today is madness.
Imagine living in a world without cars, or without electricity. It's not just convenience; our society's economic system has evolved in such a way that refusal to use technology in one's work means that there is no more work available for you to do. Potato farmers learned this the hard way when electric potato harvesters were introduced into the market, dramatically increasing productivity and essentially phasing manual recollection out, as it was no longer profitable. Imagine a package distribution network attempting to compete with UPS with the distributors riding bikes. Or think about what would happen if we stopped using airplanes. Our world is so heavily dependent on technology today that even imagining living without it is beyond our intellectual capacity.
Technology will not, and cannot, go away. However, technology right now subsists mostly on fossil fuels, and for the reasons I've outlined, we must find a way to reduce its dependency on them. And this is no easy task. Let us look at the machinery at work behind a big company like UPS. Thousands of trucks make up their delivery fleet, along with hundreds of cargo planes. Trucks use gasoline, which is derived from oil, a fossil fuel. Airplanes are among the most contaminating technologies on the planet, based on the amount of greenhouse gases they emit. The UPS hub is completely dependent on technological devices from conveyor belts to the computers that control them, along with more mundane things like light bulbs and heating systems, all of which work with electricity, a part of which (if not most) is produced in thermoelectric plants through the burning of natural gas, oil, or coal. And it's not just UPS. Imagine a company today that doesn't use computers, whose employees don't arrive to work by some form of technological transport, whose facilities don't rely heavily on electric power. They simply do not exist. Science has been able to create devices that people living one thousand years ago would have easily confused with magic. Unfortunately, they didn't come with a warning label informing us of the potential negative long term consequences of relying too much on them.
A central concept in Darwin's theory of evolution is that the random mutations that drive the evolutionary process only care about short term advantages: organisms that were able to survive a certain change in their environment due to a lucky modification in their genes sometimes perish because the same trait that allowed them to survive ends up being disadvantageous once the circumstances they live in change once again. Something like this has happened in the case of human technology and our economic system. The world today is, almost by all accounts, a better place to live in than it was in the past. But it may be all for nothing if we are unable to address the global warming problem properly. A good example of the difficulties that arise when we attempt to implement certain solutions can be found in car companies' reluctance to increase their vehicles effective performance in terms of miles per gallon. They could have done this a long time ago: the technology is there, the only difficulties rely on implementation, which are by all means solvable, at least according to the experts. But the companies don't have motivations for changing, after all, why try to change what they are doing now if they are profiting from it? About half of the American population does not even believe in global warming; those people are not going to buy a more expensive car just for the sake of it, even if they might benefit from it in the longer run because they are going to spend less money in fuel. This is the typical human being's way of thinking in a nutshell: almost everyone gives more importance to short term consequences than to long term ones, even if the long term ones are rationally more valuable and important. For thousands of years this kind of thinking allowed us to survive, but not anymore. With this in mind, explaining global warming denialism is so much easier. The consequences of global warming are not immediate, they are felt over timescales that we are not used to thinking about. Scientists like talking about what the world will look like if things continue this way by projecting 40 years ahead to 2050, or 60 years ahead to 2100. Most people don't really care about how the world will look like 40 years for now; they have so many other problems to solve in the short term that they cease worrying about the long term. Adding this to the facts that it would be easier for everyone if we didn't have to worry about climate change, that the Earth is without doubts an extremely complicated physical system, and that the people that would be more damaged economically by any change in our energy production systems are the ones that control today's energy production, and denialism becomes much easier to understand. But as the great Carl Sagan used to say, "It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”l
I've outlined how our society is extremely dependent on technology and thereby on the production of energy, which has historically been based in the burning of fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases, which are responsible for global warming. I've given a few specific examples illustrating how it is impossible today to imagine a world which is not based on what large, interconnected technological devices can do, and explained why it is so tempting to ignore the whole problem or even deny it exists. Let's now take a look at how the nature of the technology we have developed might imply that solving climate change is not as hard as it sounds. We've seen that in the end, our reliance on fossil fuels stems from our need to power our technology. Even though these technological systems have become more and more complicated with time, they all work by using energy to do physical work. So the problem that we must solve is simple: we need to figure out a way to produce energy that does not involve the burning of fossil fuels. And we've already figured out how to do that. What we lack is motivation for implementing the solution, because of the reasons that I've outlined before. There are, of course, several ways of changing this. The most important one is education. We live in a society that heavily relies on science and technology, but where almost no one understands science and technology. This needs to change. We need to start incentivizing smart students to become school teachers and university professors, we need to applaud and incentivize curiosity in young children, not condemn it, we need to increase the value that independent thinking has in our society. And as Christopher Hitchens put it, “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.”2 Scientists need to start participating more in politics and in the popularization of science, the population needs to start choosing its government representatives with more care. If this does not change, even if we somehow manage to solve the global warming menace, even if scientists were wrong all along, we are doomed as a civilization. We need to start giving a little more thought to the long term consequences of our actions. I close with another quote by Carl Sagan (there is no such thing as too much Sagan), who was one of the first scientists to recognize the importance of making the public aware of what is going on, what we are doing to our planet. "Our intelligence and our technology have given us the power to affect the climate. How will we use this power? Are we willing to tolerate ignorance and complacency in matters that affect the entire human family? Do we value short-term advantages above the welfare of the Earth? Or will we think on longer timescales, with concern for our children and our grandchildren, to understand and protect the complex life-support systems of our planet? The Earth is a tiny and fragile world. It needs to be cherished.” He wrote this in 1980. More than 30 years have passed, and so many people still refuse to understand this. I hope this is not an indication of what is to come.