It should go without saying that there’s no silver bullet solution to the climate crisis. Indeed, it’s simply too late in the game for anything resembling a “solution” at all. Industrial civilization’s slavish devotion to economic growth-at-all-costs, coupled with its fossil fuel-strapped infrastructure, have already dealt a body blow to our atmosphere’s stability — promising centuries of harrowing conditions ahead for humanity and countless other species on Earth, regardless of how we respond.
The latest climate news has only confirmed the worst fears of scientists. Weather Underground bloggers reported last week that Antarctica hit a record-breaking high of 63.5 F (17.5 C). Even more disturbing is a recent discovery by an international team of scientists who found that the Totten Glacier of East Antarctica is now melting. The Totten, it turns out, is the last line of defense against the melting of a vast catchment of ice that would raise sea levels by more than 11 feet. And that’s on top of a 10 feet rise predicted by another finding last year showing massive glacial thawing well underway in West Antarctica. To underscore what even a 10-foot sea level rise will mean for coastal cities, researchers at Climate Central have produced a jaw-dropping interactive mapping tool called “Surging Seas” that shows which coastal areas and cities will be flooded with alarming clarity. Their findings demonstrate that the United States would lose 28,800 square miles of land, which is home today to a mere 12.3 million people. Among the most threatened cities: New York, New Orleans, and Miami.
Since global climate protection summits have thus far produced more photo-ops than agreements, it’s understandable that many would pin their hopes on technological advancements in renewable energy systems, along with their scaled-up deployment, to stave off catastrophic climate change. It’s become something of a sacred belief among mainstream environmentalists that if only we could shift society’s investment in dirty fossil fuels toward cleaner, safer energy that all would be fine in the world, and we could all continue to happily consume our way to industrial nirvana, powered by solar, wind, and geothermal electrons, of course. All that’s needed, it is typically argued, is massive education about the problem of climate change, and a massive redirection of funding and policy favoritism away from the bad stuff toward the good stuff.
Well, despite their own deep-seated belief in such a vision, a well-funded team of researchers at Google have concluded that even if we could muster enough momentum toward a future powered by renewables, clean energy systems simply cannot and will not save us from devastating climate impacts. Known as RE<C, Google’s initiative launched in 2007 with the aim of developing renewable energy sources that could generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants through a combination of investments in clean energy start-ups and its own internal R&D program. By 2011, however, as it became increasingly clear that RE<C was not on track to meet its stated goals, Google shut down the initiative, according to program engineers Ross Koningstein and David Fork.
In the words of Koningstein and Fork: “At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope — but that doesn’t mean the planet is doomed.” They’re right, of course. Even though climate instability will make life increasingly difficult for us humans — as droughts, storms, killer viruses, creeping deserts, tsunamis, and floods devastate population centers and force tens of millions to migrate to more welcoming climes — most will learn to adapt, improvise, and devise new lifeways in the face of chaotic conditions. The most successful will learn to reconnect with this magnificent world’s vibrant, life-giving rhythms and cycles, and ever more deeply with one another, perhaps even without — gasp! — more and more high-tech, energy-intensive devices.
And the planet? Doomed? Nah. It will simply adopt a new “normal” of an increasingly warmer climate and tumultuous water cycle, balancing itself back to a recalibrated equilibrium. Eventually, even the excess carbon that we’ve so carelessly ejected into our atmosphere will filter out of the skies and return to the oceans, the land, and subterranean realms. In the process, industrial civilization will become yet another layer in the fossil record of geological time.
Of course, in all fairness to the Google research team, their project was doomed from the start. The underlying assumptions were that industrial society will grow forever using ever more energy (thus requiring the replacement of finite fossil energy with renewables) and that some sort of “radical” technological breakthrough can save the day (thus demanding ever more investment in clean energy R&D). It was never imagined that industrial society must face up to its own end, dependent as it is on cheap and abundant fossil fuels — fuels which just so happen to be declining in quality, quantity, and accessibility each and every day. No, the Google team’s efforts never stood a chance against ecological or geological reality, much less the deep-seated denial that pervades the industrial mind.
And yet, they deserve praise for making such a bold and gallant effort. For through their failure, they’ve helped to illuminate a critical blind spot in our thinking about energy: that no matter how much we may wish to believe in the value of renewable energy systems (I, for one, am a strong proponent), they’re not our saving grace. We are.