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Our Fixation on Green Technology Harms Our Ability to Confront Climate Crisis

Green technology “solutions” to the climate crisis distract us from the deep structural changes that we need to make.

A man works in a power plant in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, on October 20, 2023.

Green technology is at the forefront of many climate conversations, from electric cars, to solar energy batteries, to the burgeoning interest in carbon capture. Though sometimes well-meaning and useful, green technology is only one piece of the greater climate solutions pie. A narrow focus on green technology as a panacea for the climate crisis can obscure the importance of immediate political action and social change.

Before I joined the climate movement, I, like many Americans, saw the climate crisis as just a scientific problem. This made sense to me because it was scientists who, through decades of research, linked carbon emissions to global warming. So, if scientists identified the problem, then science and technology could get us out. If we had new energy sources, more efficient cars and could capture carbon, our problems would be solved, I mistakenly once thought. However, framing climate problems as a science issue is a strategic misplacement of responsibility that benefits the corporations that profit from the perpetuation of the status quo. This framing is a strategy meant to displace the burden of responsibility for action from fossil fuel companies, polluting industries and acquiescent politicians, all of which are to blame for the climate crisis’s root causes.

The focus on technology ignores many factors. For one, waiting on a perfect technology without a swift reduction in emissions and an urgent transition away from fossil fuels will doom us to the worst of the climate crisis. Nuclear fusion, for example, will not be ready for mass utilization by 2050; and neither carbon capture and storage or blue hydrogen alone will solve the climate crisis. To continue to rely on the hope of such technologies, while ignoring the immediate gravity of the climate crisis, is a mistake — a mistake that many fossil fuel companies hope we will make and buy them more time. We must be realistic and not let the promise of exciting new technology get in the way of the immediate action needed.

The ongoing focus on new technologies also helps keep everyday people complacent about the climate crisis. When I was under the impression that we just had to wait for scientists to perfect a miracle invention, I had no interest in climate action. It allowed me to separate myself from the problem, and not keep my elected officials and corporate leaders accountable. However, in the past few years, scientists have made it abundantly clear that this is not the case. We already have 95 percent of the technology we need. Technologies like renewable energies are ready for an energy transition away from fossil fuels and must be coupled with a scaling down of polluting industries and confronting over-production.

We must also address the appeal of these promised ideal green technologies that continue to capture the public imagination and corporate interest. Emerging technologies like carbon capture and storage and nuclear fusion promise a future where people who live resource-intensive lives, particularly wealthy people in Western countries, can continue to do so in a “green way.” This vision of the world is one where fossil fuels are swapped out for renewable resources, without any fundamental challenge to our economic, social or political systems.

We are not in this climate crisis because we have bad technology. We are here because our societies have prioritized the resource-intensive livelihoods of a few, at the cost of the environment and well-being of many.

This narrow and unimaginative vision of a sustainable world is unfortunately holding us back from what needs to happen to address the climate crisis. There will be no magical technology that will save us. The answer to climate change has always been much more than just scientific innovation; it is economic, social and geopolitical. We are not in this climate crisis because we have bad technology. We are here because our societies have prioritized the resource-intensive livelihoods of a few, at the cost of the environment and well-being of many. The unsustainable and polluting technology we have is only responding to our society’s obsession to go faster, grow bigger and consume more at any cost. It is that system of value that must be disrupted to solve the climate crisis. Relying on green technology without systemic change is a Band-Aid approach.

Our understanding of technology and its role in our society must also shift. For too long, we’ve seen technology as a way to dominate or overcome our natural environments. Western societies have built this illusion that we are somehow separate from our local ecologies because of technology. We are not beyond the laws of nature and we can’t expand and consume resources endlessly. Technology cannot fix this delusion, and if anything, it can only fuel it. For centuries, Western countries have invisibilized the ecological costs of our industrial societies. This is often done by relying on nature to absorb pollution, forcing poor communities and communities of color to take the brunt of environmental issues, and shipping environmental problems off to lower-income countries. In many ways, the climate crisis is a confrontation of this belief. After centuries of ignoring the temporal and physical limitations of our planet, the chickens are coming to roost.

Only through systemic change can we avoid ecological collapse, mass displacement and the global turmoil of an unmitigated climate crisis.

In my work as a climate advocate, I’ve had to accept that our world will have to look very different if we hope to address the climate crisis. The logic of our economic system must be fundamentally challenged. We live on an Earth with a finite number of resources, and infinite economic growth is not only impossible, it is destructive. Our economic logic must shift to calculating success through collective social and environmental well-being, not stakeholder profits. The most carbon-intensive industries and fossil fuel production that continue to jeopardize the livability of our planet must be quickly phased out. Our politicians must prioritize social and ecological health, as two sides of the same coin in promoting well-being. Technologies must be reframed as tools that work with and enhance, not against or independent of, our natural environments.

Technology is without a doubt a critical component of creating a more sustainable world. However, technology can’t solve problems that require political, economic and social change. For that, we must continue to mobilize and demand accountability from politicians and change from corporations. Only through systemic change can we avoid ecological collapse, mass displacement and the global turmoil of an unmitigated climate crisis.

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