At the root of our climate problem, writes Pope Francis in his ecological encyclical Laudato Si, lies our human pride and arrogance: “The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.” Coming from a Catholic Pope, such sentiments are hardly surprising. For centuries, Christians thinkers have railed against pride as the first and worst among the seven deadly sins. But Francis is far from alone in his view. Many climate activists today, even though they don’t necessarily believe in a personal deity, share Francis’ diagnosis of our environmental worries. They too believe that our climate crisis is the result of human overreach and arrogance, of overstepping natural boundaries. Indeed, this secular environmentalist worldview comes with its own account of the fall of man from an original state of harmony with Nature. Once upon a time, humans lived as an animal alongside other animals, keenly aware of our proper place within a larger ecosystem. We enjoyed nature’s bountiful resources, but we were respectful of her limits. But then along came the scientific revolution and, soon after that, the industrial revolution. By unravelling Nature’s mysteries we gained mastery over her, and we began to treat her as an object to be mercilessly exploited. We turned, as a species, into planetary plunderers.
It’s a compelling narrative but, much like the Genesis story of original sin, it’s hogwash. When we were still living as hunter-gatherers, our ecological footprint was substantially higher, per capita, than today. Our ancestors laid a larger claim on the ecosystem, in return for a much lower standard of living. With a population of no more than a few million, humans managed to wipe out all of the large land animals almost everywhere they set foot. It was the same story with deforestation: relatively small human populations brought about large-scale destruction. Today our planet hosts 7.7 billion people, and our lives are wealthier and healthier than ever before, but if we all lived like our hunter-gatherer forebears, the planet could support about 100 million of us at most. The main reason why our ancestors didn’t wreak even greater ecological havoc is that they numbered too few and died too young.
The right way to look at anthropogenic climate change is as an unexpected side-effect of something that, by and large, proved an immense blessing to humanity. Sure, if we had left all those fossilized remains of ancient animals and plants under the ground, we would not now be stuck with rising global temperatures. But then our lives would also have remained solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, as they had been for the better part of world history until around 1800. Eventually, the Industrial Revolution even turned out to be good news for Nature. Once humans had gained access to an abundant source of high-density energy such as coal, they no longer had to cut down forests to cook food or to keep warm, and they stopped hunting whales to fill their oil lamps. Historical research shows that pollution in Europe was much worse in the Middle Ages, and that three quarters of global deforestation occurred before 1800, not after. According to WWF’s Living Planet Index, nature is starting to flourish again in wealthy, industrialized countries. Forests are being restored, rivers are teeming with life again, and wildlife that had disappeared for decades or even centuries is making a steady comeback.
Fossil fuels have been (and in developing countries still are) a great stepladder in the history of human progress. But now the time has come to kick this ladder away from under our feet. A task of such magnitude calls not for modesty and humility, but for thinking big and bold. As the environmentalist Mark Lynas wrote: “At this late stage, false humility is a more urgent danger than hubris.” Some cuts on travel and consumption will be necessary, but hardly sufficient. Regardless of what we do, global energy demands will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. If industrialized countries really want to make a difference, they should stop obsessing about their own short-term emission reductions and instead drastically increase their R&D budgets for clean energy innovation.
Here’s the nub of the problem. Fossil fuels deliver a range of important services to humanity, which have historically been responsible for the unprecedented levels of wealth and prosperity we are enjoying today. So the challenge before us is to find carbon-neutral alternatives for all these services, which deliver all the benefits but not the costs. This means that we need technological solutions in aviation, in agriculture, in steel production and the cement industry, and in virtually every other economic sector. Most climate activists, to be sure, are not averse to technological innovation per se (except for a few stray Luddites and back-to-nature radicals). But here again, the trouble is that they will only accept technologies that fit a certain profile: renewable, small-scale, circular, sustainable, local. It is the illusion of living in “harmony with nature” all over again. Poster-child examples of such technologies are solar panels and wind turbines, since these technologies harness natural energy freely provided by nature, and because they are—or are perceived to be—small, decentralized, and self-sufficient.
Alas, despite huge investments in solar and wind, both energy sources jointly account for about one percent of global energy production. We can expect their share to grow in the coming years and decades, but eventually the technology will run up against the laws of physics. The energy density of solar and wind is much lower than that of fossil fuels, which means that you need far more land and raw materials (steel, concrete, rare metals) to produce a given amount of energy, which is not exactly eco-friendly. On top of that, the sun is not always shining and the wind is not always blowing. Enthusiasts of renewables often cite the constantly falling costs of these technologies per kilowatt-hour, which are indeed impressive, but as long as we haven’t solved the intermittency problem those figures count for little. Our modern economies also need electricity during longer winter-nights, or on cloudy and windless days, and the much-expected revolution in energy storage is not yet visible on the horizon. In sum, those who believe that the world economy as a whole can switch to renewables by 2050 are simply deluding themselves.
It’s simple: either we find some technological solutions to solve our climate problem, or we won’t solve it at all. People in the developing world urgently need their own industrial revolution (if only to protect them against the consequences of climate change), but this time it should not be powered by fossil fuels like the one we have enjoyed for the past two centuries. If we don’t want other countries to burn up those trillions of tons of coal and oil still under the ground, then we have to develop technological alternatives that are cheaper and less polluting while being at least equally reliable, and then to offer them for free.
It gets worse, because the technological solutions that are truly effective for tackling our climate crisis are often exactly the ones that are denounced and opposed by climate activists. Take electricity production again, which accounts for 25 percent of global emissions (and potentially much more if we start electrifying cars and other things). If our goal is “deep decarbonization,” by far the most effective way to get there is nuclear energy, as Joshua Goldstein and Steffan Qvist argue in their book A Bright Future. Nuclear reactors generate huge amounts of electricity on tiny land surfaces while emitting not a single gram of CO2 (small amounts of CO2 are emitted for building the actual plants and mining the materials, but this is true of every energy source including solar and wind). Unlike renewables, nuclear plants also supply power round the clock, regardless of weather conditions. The energy density of uranium is three million times higher than that of coal or oil, which is in turn many times higher than solar and wind, which means that nuclear plants also produce far lower volumes of waste. Future reactor types promise to increase energy efficiency further still, as well as to recycle and harvest the fissile material currently treated as “waste.” In addition, despite everything you’ve been hearing in the news, nuclear energy is the safest and least polluting energy source in the world. The only countries that have thus far managed to decarbonize their electricity sector, such as France and Sweden, did so by relying heavily on nuclear power (and they weren’t even doing it on purpose, as climate change was not on the agenda back then).
This is something I think we can achieve, if we put our minds to it. It would not be the first time that human ingenuity has solved a problem that human ingenuity had thrown up in the first place (see: the hole in the ozone layer). In this unique moment in our planet’s history, we have a species that is intelligent enough to care for other species and to keep the ecosystem in a state of balance. Whatever the Pope may claim, there isn’t any “higher instance than ourselves,” and we would be ill-advised to count on the existence of one. Homo sapiens is by far the highest form of intelligence in this remote corner of the cosmos. Well then: noblesse oblige. In the words of Stewart Brand, one of the founding fathers of modern environmentalism: “We are like gods, and we must become good at it.” And preferably not the kind of Biblical God who sweeps away his creation in a worldwide flood, but responsible and intelligent gods who prove to be good stewards of the planet. But to achieve that, we have to show some healthy ambition and to throw off the shackles of ideology.