An Irresponsible Optimism

I just came across Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics post from Monday suggesting that man-made tornadoes or some other silver bullet will likely be the cure for climate change; we needn’t fret. His reasoning:

Technology and human ingenuity have solved just about every problem we’ve faced so far; there is no obvious reason why global warming shouldn’t succumb as well.

“Just about” is a little generous. The world still suffers under a host of diseases, inter- and intra-state conflicts, and nature’s hardships, none of which we can reasonably expect to tame through technology or human ingenuity in the near future. The human race has, without a doubt, achieved remarkable progress, but the idea that we have, for the most part, subdued nature (human or otherwise) is way off the mark.

Moreover, just because we’ve demonstrated the ability to overcome major roadblocks in the past, it doesn’t follow that we can expect to be handed the easy solution in this instance. The dinosaurs also managed to survive every roadblock until they met the one they couldn’t.

Levitt’s post may seem like a harmless one-off showcasing a quirky idea, but there is a real danger in underestimating the scope of the effects of climate change or relying too heavily on a silver bullet. The risks associated with not appropriately stepping up to the plate are unparalleled in scope and impact. (The IPCC’s reports have sobering on this point.) And, any comprehensive solution would have to be massive in scope and absurdly quick in development. According to the Scientific Experts Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development, unless we level off greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 and cut them by two-thirds by 2100, we risk crossing a global “tipping-point,” which “could lead to intolerable impacts on human well-being, in spite of all feasible attempts at adaptation.” Does Levitt actually believe that any one technological solution powerful enough to shift the climate of our planet can be developed on so short a time frame?

To be sure, technology and human ingenuity will be absolutely necessary for mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change. But, more than a mythical silver bullet, we will need to build massive amounts of political will. Propagating ideas to the contrary is simply irresponsible.