Scientists say there’s a lot we can still do to slow the speed of climate change. But when it comes to “climate solutions,” some are real, and some aren’t, says Naomi Oreskes, historian of science at Harvard University. “This space has become really muddied,” she says.
So how does someone figure out what’s legit? We asked six climate scholars for the questions they ask themselves whenever they come across something claiming to be a climate solution.
A big climate solution is an obvious one
It may sound basic, but one big way to address climate change is to reduce the main human activity that caused it in the first place: burning fossil fuels.
Scientists say that means ultimately transitioning away from oil, coal and gas and becoming more energy efficient. We already have a lot of the technology we need to make this transition, like solar, wind, and batteries, Oreskes says.
“What we need to do right now is to mobilize the technologies that already exist, that work and are cost competitive, and that essentially means renewable energy and storage,” she says.
Think about who’s selling you the solution
It’s important to think about both who’s selling you the climate solution and what they say the problem is, says Melissa Aronczyk, professor of media at Rutgers University.
“People like to come up with solutions, but to do that, they usually have to interpret the problem in a way that works for them,” she says.
Oreskes says pay attention when you see a “climate solution” that means increasing the use of fossil fuels. She says an example is natural gas, which has been sold as a “bridge fuel” from coal to renewable energy. But natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and its production, transport and use release methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide.
“I think we need to start by looking at what happens when the fossil fuel industry comes up with solutions, because here is the greatest potential for conflict of interest,” Aronczyk says.
A solution may sound promising, but is it available and scalable now?
Sometimes you’ll hear about new promising technology like carbon removal, which vacuums carbon dioxide out of the air and stores it underground, says David Ho, a professor of oceanography at University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Ho researches climate solutions and he says ask yourself: is this technology available, affordable, or scalable now?
“I think people who don’t work in this space think we have all these technologies that are ready to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, for instance. And we’re not there,” Ho says.
If it’s adding emissions, it’s not a climate solution
These days all kinds of companies, from airlines to wedding dress companies, might offer to let you buy “carbon offsets” along with your purchase. That offset money could do something like build a new wind farm or plant trees that would — in theory — soak up and store the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions of taking a flight or making a new dress.
But there are often problems with regulation and verification of offsets, says Roberto Schaeffer, a professor of energy economics at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. “It’s very dangerous, very dangerous indeed,” he says.
He says with offsets from forests, it’s hard to verify if the trees are really being protected, that those trees won’t get cut down or burned in a wildfire.
“You cannot guarantee, ‘Okay, you’re gonna offset your dress by planting a tree.’ You have no guarantee that in three years time that tree is gonna be there,” he says.
If you make emissions thinking you’re offsetting them, and the offset doesn’t work, that’s doubling the emissions, says Adrienne Buller, a climate finance researcher and director of research at Common Wealth, a think tank in the United Kingdom, “It’s sort of like doubly bad.”
If a solution sounds too easy, be skeptical
Many things sold as carbon offsets — like restoring or protecting forests — are, on their own, great climate solutions, Buller says. “We need things like trees,” she says, “To draw carbon out of the atmosphere.”
The problem is when carbon markets sell the idea that you can continue emitting as usual and everything will be fine if you just buy an offset, Buller says. “It’s kind of a solution that implies that we don’t have to do that much hard work. We can just kind of do some minor tweaks to the way that we currently do things,” she says.
Schaeffer says there is a lot of hard work in our future to get off of fossil fuels and onto clean energy sources. “So people have to realize there is a price to pay here. No free lunch.”
It’s not all about business. Governments must play a role in solutions, too
We often think of businesses working on climate solutions on their own, but that’s often not the case, says Oreskes. Government often plays a big role in funding and research support for new climate technology, says June Sekera, a visiting scholar at The New School who studies public policy and climate.
And governments will also have to play a big role in regulating emissions, says Schaeffer, who has been working with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for 25 years.
That’s why all the scholars NPR spoke with for this story say one big climate solution is to vote.
Schaeffer points to the recent election in Brazil, where climate change was a big campaign issue for candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula won, and has promised to address deforestation, a big source of Brazil’s emissions.
There’s no one solution to climate change – and no one can do it alone
Aronczyk wants to make one thing clear: there is no one solution to climate change.
“We’re human beings. We encounter a problem, we wanna solve that problem,” Aronczyk says, “But just as there is no one way to describe climate change, there’s no one way to offer a solution.”
Climate solutions will take different forms, Sekera says. Some solutions may slow climate change, some may offer us ways to adapt.
The key thing, Aronczyk says, is that climate solutions will involve governments, businesses, and individuals. She says: “It is an all hands on deck kind of a situation.”
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