Updated: Oct 20
The devastating effects of climate change lure on the horizon, and the scene is set for our billionaire heroes to slay our common enemy. Whilst Elon Musk readies his cavalry of silent Teslas and Bill Gates quests to unearth some secret weapon, our carbon-emission demon grows stronger and more capable of obliteration every day. So why is it taking us so long to gear up for the coming war?
The facts have been there for years, prophesied by scientists. One powerful moment in recent memory is that of Peter Kalmus, NASA scientist, chained to JP Morgan Chase Bank in Los Angeles, welling up as he told cameras: “We’ve been trying to warn you guys for so many decades, that we’re heading towards a f***ing catastrophe, and we’re being ignored – the scientists of the world are being ignored.”
We, the capitalists, have apparently been holding out and continue to hold out for the discovery of some technological miracle: some silver bullet that will rid us of the beast born of our own past mistakes.
Peter Kalmus delivered this speech on April 6th 2022, following the IPCC Working Group 3 report, which detailed the irreconcilability between where society is headed and where society needs to go if we are to survive this global threat. Kalmus chose to protest outside of JP Morgan because they are the investment bank with the largest stakes in fossil-fuel projects.
Scientists like Kalmus and his peers at NASA know that much of the arsenal of methods we will deploy in order to overcome the climate crisis have already been discovered and developed – but global investment in clean tech continues to fall short of what it needs to be, and even shorter of fossil-fuel opponents.
Electric vehicles, sustainable aviation fuel, clean steel, green cement, regenerative farming: these aren’t illusive, mysterious solutions. We’ve all heard of them before. And they are technologies that exist – in varying stages of their development, of course, but the research and development is there. The delay in their widespread adoption really comes down to barriers in the way of investors.
There is the risk that a new product may fail, tainting its risk-return profile for investors.
A new product necessarily comes with no proof that it has a commercially viable market.
Some climate companies scale without additional functional benefits, and therefore come at a cost premium.
Robert Stoner, the deputy director for Science and Technology at the MIT Energy Initiative, has elaborated on another risk within green investment that explains our hesitation.
“The risk [in investing in new technologies that are evolving quickly] is that your investment will lock you into a cost point that will make you look foolish in a couple of years”.
Investors are worried that had they held off just a little longer, their profit margins would be that much greater.
I can’t help but wonder who is going to look most foolish when droughts, floods, forest fires, and other weather disasters start to reduce the Earth’s resources and drastically increase the amount of displaced people we have on the planet – who is going to look most foolish when our standard of life starts to rapidly decline?
It’s not like we haven’t already learnt this lesson, either. The main technology in modern solar panels was created in 1954, when Bell Labs developed the first silicon photovoltaic cell. Because of its newness, solar technologies lacked financial backing, and after twenty years of further development, it then took another thirty years for the technology to scale and compete with fossil fuel alternatives. Bill Gates has argued that, had solar accrued financial support in 1985 (ten years after they were fully developed), solar would have begun to displace carbon-intensive power sources eight years sooner than it did.
Moreover, some of the solutions – they are so simple! A BBC report last year stated that the UK could reduce their electricity consumption by an entire per cent if supermarkets would only put doors on their fridges! (Kudos to Aldi – who have taken this challenge on. You can catch their shiny new refrigerator doors in our own St Andrews store!).
I am a young person, at the start of their adult life, looking out to a bleak future – and (perhaps too readily) I feel I am being sold a lie by older generations to trust in human ingenuity and the ‘invisible hand’ of the capitalist system. I’m no economics student – but it seems to me that all the economic jargon is currently only delaying technologies that will accelerate decarbonisation and continuing to put money into the pockets of fossil fuel tyrants who threaten the future of our planet.
Climate change is more than an economic or political issue – which is how it is understood by all too many of our world leaders. It is a moral issue, it is an issue of justice, and it is an issue that we can accredit to the failing of our current world system.
We cannot hold out for a miracle from some big tech corporation any longer. We must begin to implement the solutions that we have available to us, and seek solutions outside the capitalist framework that has kept us pinned to our post.
Illustration by Ruby Pitman