What Could Keep Climate Change From Becoming Catastrophic?

Aug 9, 2022 7:00 AM

What Could Keep Climate Change From Becoming Catastrophic?

WIRED’s editor in chief weighs the merits and detriments of carbon capture and storage, plus more thoughts on this month’s headlines.

An illustration of a carbon atom.

Illustration: Elena Lacey; Alamy

We all know climate change is going to be bad. How bad? Can we stop it from becoming catastrophic? (Choose your own definition of “catastrophic.”) Tell me your view in the comments here—and then, if you’re in the Bay Area on September 28, you might enjoy Re:WIRED Green, our one-day event on how human ingenuity can tackle climate change. There’ll be talks, demos, and discussions with some of the most interesting researchers, activists, and entrepreneurs working on this problem. Which brings us nicely to the topic of this month’s update.

People who call themselves climate optimists tend to say things like: Yes, it’s really bad, but humans have been pretty good at warding off really bad things. The Malthusian trap, the ozone hole, acid rain. Of course, “We did it before so we’ll do it again” may not be the logic you want to rely on when the fate of billions of people is in the balance. And switching the entire global economy away from fossil fuels is arguably a tad trickier than those other problems. (Though who could have guessed at the time?)

At WIRED we look pretty frequently at some of the more out-there technological solutions, and the story is usually something like: “This is promising, but there are some nasty trade-offs.” A great example that we wrote about in-depth last December and again last month is carbon capture and storage (CCS): chemically scrubbing carbon dioxide out of the air and locking it underground. Many experts agree this is probably a necessary supplement to pumping out less carbon in the first place. But the technology is expensive, hard to scale, and—the bit that really rankles—is turning into a gold rush for the very same companies that drill and burn fossil fuels. Well, that’s capitalism for you.

Or take a slightly older CCS technology: trees. Planting more of them would definitely help, but it takes new trees decades or centuries to get as good at absorbing carbon as the rapidly disappearing old-growth forests. You might be able to genetically modify trees and other plants to suck up carbon faster, but spreading GM trees all over the world without knowing the long-term effects makes people (rightly) nervous. On the other hand, breeding more carbon-hungry trees the non-GM way might take too long.

Then there are biofuels. But switching over has knock-on effects, like requiring more fertilizer to grow biofuel crops, which also produces emissions. Or low-carbon beef—but it’s still much higher-carbon than other meat, so marketing it as low-carbon could paradoxically encourage people to eat more of it and produce higher net emissions. Or growing special crops to burn as fuel while capturing and storing the emissions from that; but then again, you need more fertilizer and farming infrastructure.

Overall, we’re not lacking in ingenuity. The technologies exist, including some that aren’t as controversial as the ones above. If properly applied, they could keep the world under 2 degrees of warming. What’s missing? Mainly financing, and the political will to get countries to stick to their promises. The climate bill that passed in the US Senate on Sunday is a promising start.

Most Popular

Image may contain Text

The future of Western democracy is something I think about a lot these days, and our September cover story is a glimpse of part of that future, where political stances are sold like sneakers, jewelry, and beach holidays by an army of online influencers preaching to their followers. Ben Wofford digs into Urban Legend, a company that has cornered the market on influencer marketing for political purposes. Through some digital sleuthing, he dug up some remarkable data on the kinds of campaigns it has been running, mostly on conservative culture-war favorites like “critical race theory,” gun control, and vaccine mandates, but also some liberal ones like the minimum wage. Most people won’t know they’re seeing paid political advertising because such marketing can easily sidestep the negligible enforcement of disclosure rules.

Image may contain Text

Image may contain Text
Gideon Lichfield is the editor in chief of all editions of WIRED. He left the UK in 1998 and has mostly avoided the place since, living in Mexico City, Moscow, and Jerusalem before moving to the US. He was previously editor in chief of MIT Technology Review, one of the… Read more
Global Editorial Director

More from WIRED

Congress Might Pass an Actually Good Privacy Bill

A bill with bipartisan support might finally give the US a strong federal data protection law.

Gilad Edelman

The Speedy Downfall of Rapid Delivery Startups

Companies that promise groceries delivered in 15 minutes surged during the pandemic—but are now in retreat.

Arielle Pardes

Meet the Lobbyist Next Door

What do a Real Housewife, an Olympic athlete, and a doula have in common? They’re all being paid by an ad-tech startup as influencers—peddling not products but ideologies.

Benjamin Wofford

When AI Makes Art, Humans Supply the Creative Spark

Fears that artificial intelligence tools could displace creatives such as illustrators, designers, and photographers seem unfounded—for now.

Will Knight

The US Military Is Building Its Own Metaverse

Defense tech companies have latched on to the metaverse hype—but what they’re building will be a far cry from Meta’s virtual world.

Will Knight

Cruise’s Robot Car Outages Are Jamming Up San Francisco

In a series of incidents, the GM subsidiary lost contact with its autonomous vehicles, leaving them frozen in traffic and trapping human drivers.

Aarian Marshall

The Twitter Whistleblower Plays Right Into Elon Musk’s Hands

Damning accusations from Twitter’s former chief of security could have widespread consequences for Musk’s takeover.

Chris Stokel-Walker

Spyware Scandals Are Ripping Through Europe

The latest crisis that rocked the Greek government shows the bloc’s surveillance problem goes beyond the notorious NSO Group.

Morgan Meaker

Credit belongs to : www.wired.com

Check Also

In Bulgaria, Russian Trolls Are Winning the Information War

Supporters of Nationalist and Russophile party of Vazrazhdane protest in Sofia, Bulgaria. They are against …