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What Could Keep Climate Change From Becoming Catastrophic?

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.

Swinging for the Climate Fences

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.

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