Tech-utopian hero worship is one of the social scourges of our time

Extreme storms hit much of the United States at the weekend, leaving more than 350,000 Americans without power. According to, as of Monday morning over 30,000 residents remained without power in my adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon. To add insult to injury, we were hit with disinformation about when and how we could expect power to be fully restored.

To deal with the crisis, our county, Multnomah, declared a state of emergency and opened shelters, but at least two people appear to have died of hypothermia. During the storm, which initially left 15% of Portland without power during sub-zero temperatures, a massive fir tree broke near the base of its trunk across the street from where I live, causing damage to a local business.

Portland, which is known for its generally cool, rainy, mild climate, rarely sees temperatures this low. Oddly enough, it was while the snowstorm raged outside my windows that I first read the news that 2023 has been officially confirmed the hottest year on record (and fifth hottest in the US). Of course, as climate change raises the global average temperature, we are going to continue seeing more extreme and catastrophic weather events of all kinds.

Americans dealt with no fewer than 28 natural disasters doing $1bn of damage or more in 2023 (the previous record for billion-dollar disasters, established in 2020, was 22). They include the wildfire that devastated the Hawaiian island of Maui, tornadoes, floods, drought, cyclones, and hail and racked up a total of $92.9bn in damages, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. While the economic impact may be tallied up, I suppose, the horrific human costs extracted by the worst disasters are clearly incalculable.

So, naturally, The New York Times has chosen the start of 2024 to run a cheery 5,000-word report on the heroic potential of 'geoengineering', or 'climate engineering', to solve the world's climate woes. Climate despair, after all, is bad for business. And if good old-fashioned human ingenuity, "disruption," and capitalism got us into this mess, then surely they can get us out, right?

For those unfamiliar with the term, the report defines geoengineering as "human interventions in Earth's natural systems in order to reap societal benefits even in the face of unclear risks."

That might sound benign enough. We could probably even argue that any attempt to stop the continuous rise of global average temperature qualifies as geoengineering under such a broad definition. But cutting carbon emissions, which seems to me like the only realistic way forward, is clearly not what proponents of geoengineering have in mind when they use the term. They are, instead, hoping "to reduce the impacts of climate change and to buy us more time as we transition to a zero-carbon world," often with grandiose projects that, even if feasible, might have serious unintended consequences.

The Times's reporting focuses on a proposal by British glaciologist John Moore and his colleague Michael Wolovick to construct a massive underwater barrier in Greenland's Disko Bay, deflecting a warm water current away from the Jakobshavn Glacier and thereby, perhaps, staving off some of the sea ice loss that is a key factor in the acceleration of global warming. Moore believes it could be done for a cost of about $500m and hopes to try the same approach in Antarctica, where he reckons, about $50bn could save a critical glacier called Thwaites.

If this sounds like it might be a bad idea to you, you're not alone, though you have to read more than half of the piece before learning many glaciologists find this proposal "technically and ethically problematic," with the potential to do serious ecological damage to, for example, nearby fisheries. The possible timelines to even attempt interventions of this nature would also run to at least a decade in the case of Greenland, and longer for Antarctica.

At the risk of channelling my inner Greta Thunberg, I don't think we have that kind of time - particularly when we know we could make a more immediate difference by cutting CO2 emissions. Let's imagine the kind of funding Moore and Wolovick need for their half-baked plan was available. Wouldn't it be better to spend it on replacing polluting energy infrastructure with proven greener technology?

Infrastructure improvements may seem unsexy and unheroic, but to my mind, tech-utopian hero worship is one of the social scourges of our time. A reinvigoration of collective solidarity and a commitment to making major infrastructural improvements seems much more likely to lead us to a better future.

From openDemocracy

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