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Climate Change vs. Techno-Utopia

Given all of the great feats of human ingenuity over the past few centuries, it is tempting to believe that we ultimately will solve the problem of climate change with some yet-to-be developed technological breakthrough. But such thinking carries serious risks.

BOSTON – Humanity has never faced a collective challenge as daunting as climate change. Net global greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions must be reduced to near-zero within the next three decades to give us even a fighting chance of keeping the temperatures within 2° Celsius of pre-industrial levels. The further we exceed that threshold, the more likely we are to run into truly catastrophic scenarios. With the United States back in the Paris climate agreement, this is the time for the world to reengage with these epochal challenges.

Bill Gates’s highly respected voice is thus a welcome addition to these efforts. In his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, Gates argues that we need more experimentation with new ideas and technological innovations if we are to find a solution. But his push for solar geoengineering is a step in the wrong direction, because it may undermine the incentives that are needed to meet the challenge of climate change.

The idea behind solar geoengineering is simple: If we cannot limit the amount of GHGs in the atmosphere, perhaps we can block the sunlight that generates heat, for example by creating a reflective cover. Volcanic eruptions do this naturally. Following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, large amounts of sulfuric acid and dust settled into the stratosphere, temporarily reducing the amount of sunlight that the Earth received. Over the next three years, temperatures dropped by about 0.5°C globally, and by 0.6°C in the northern hemisphere.

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