Technology (Global Warming)

TECHNOLOGY IS DEFINED as applying science to manipulate or change the human environment. Although it is usually thought to involve some form of machinery or physical equipment, technology can just as effectively be intangible in form, such as with management technology, which provides different ways of understanding how resources, including people, may be organized for more efficient production or operation. Historically, technology changed and developed very slowly around the world. However in more recent years, the improvements in infrastructure—and particularly in communications—have meant that technological advances have increased at an ever-quicker rate. Meanwhile, the dissemination of that technology has spread around the world, although there are still many hundreds of millions of people too poor to benefit from it. Nevertheless, for most people, especially in the Western world, life and society have been transformed completely by the technologies that have emerged over the last two decades.

Because the rate of change of new technological innovation continues to accelerate, it seems likely that life and society in the future will be at least as difficult to predict now as it would have been a few decades in the past. Because of its prevalence in society, its ability to reduce the time needed for generally undesirable domestic tasks, and its ability to improve leisure opportunities, among other attributes, most people welcome technology and believe it to be beneficial to their lives. However there are still individuals and groups of people who may, perhaps for ideological or religious reasons, reject the use of technology. Because global climate change has come to be associated with the use of technology and the energy required to power so much of it, technology as a whole has come to be regarded by some people as an enemy that must be resisted and eradicated. In the extreme case, there are people who believe that only by returning to a form of society in which all forms of technology are rejected can humanity survive the forthcoming environmental crisis.


Philosophers such as Michael Foucault, meanwhile, consider technology to be a tool most commonly used by the powered elites of society to suppress the masses. They would point out that the introduction of technology is customarily followed by the imposition of restrictions that prevent the majority of people from accessing the benefits of that technology. For example, internet technology in China is regularly used to spy on the activities of ordinary people and keep their discussions heavily monitored. This is an instance of technology being used to suppress people and to maintain the existing architecture of power. In contrast, it is possible to argue that the very same technology actually represents a liberation of people because of the many new ways it enables people to communicate with each other and to share information.

Most people tend toward a more moderate position, recognizing the better lifestyle that some aspects of technology provide and being unwilling to abandon these forms, while accepting the need for greater efficiency in the use of resources. They would be unwilling to voluntarily choose to forego the use of that technology to cause some future effects to abate. In other words, people will not vote for significant reductions in the use of personal technologies to reduce future damage caused by climate change. To change their minds, some activists believe that it is necessary to startle or scare people into realizing what sort of changes are likely in the future. Those more skeptical of those future changes, meanwhile, accuse such activists of regularly committing this act and concluding, as a result, that all calls for changes in behavior are overstated and, possibly, politically motivated. This argument has been successfully deployed, in that it has muddied the waters of debate and, hence, reduced the likelihood of future changes in behavior.

THE ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY IN ABATING CLIMATE CHANGE

Technology can be employed to abate current and future climate change in a number of ways. At a large or macrolevel, there are plans to place enormous mirrors into orbit around the earth so that they reflect light energy from the sun back out into space, reducing atmospheric temperature. At a medium or meso-level is the attempt to develop new and cleaner technologies in terms of energy production, which would reduce carbon emissions. At a microlevel, there are the efforts to reduce resource use inefficiencies by such means as recycling waste products, turning off unattended electronic devices, and generally developing technologies to mitigate future climate change. The extent to which it is possible to abate future climate change by action at the microlevel is not clear, and many estimates vary widely.


Clearly, turning off unused computers or televisions that are idle will save some energy and reduce carbon emissions, but many people believe that this amount of saved energy will be dwarfed by the increased amount of emissions resulting from the rapid and rather dirty industrialization occurring in India and China, in particular. Indeed, there is an argument that because the effects elsewhere are so great, there is no point trying to reduce emissions on a personal level. This argument does not bear rational examination: in the first place, the reduction of the rate of acceleration of global warming must of itself be a necessary and important thing; second, the people and governments of India and China (and most of the rest of the world) are also aware of the problems of global climate change and are willing to do what they can to bring about changes in their own lives.

Other arguments suggest that changes at the microlevel can have significant changes in the extent of future climate change. The noted skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg, for example, has argued that one of the principal causes of increased atmospheric heat is the presence of cities, especially large cities, across most of the inhabited world. Cities are built or have organically grown, in general terms, to maximize population density and, as such, are dry areas without much greenery or standing water. Further, many of the buildings or infrastructure within cities are dark in nature and, as a result, absorb a great deal of energy in a needless fashion. The result is that cities are several degrees F/C or more hotter than surrounding areas. This problem fuels increased use of air conditioning systems and other energy use (e.g., for refrigerators and other cooling devices), which leads to a vicious cycle. Lomborg argues that low-technology solutions can reduce the urban effect: paint buildings white, introduce more water areas, replace some tarmac with grass, and so forth. Taking these steps may reduce the temperature in the local city areas by several degrees. This would have a knock-on effect, too, as in many cases political priorities are determined by urban electorates. As a consequence, demonstrating that technology—even comparatively low-technology solutions—can lead to a measurable improvement in quality of life, which might then lead to more positive sentiment toward the use of technology to improve future lifestyles.

Concurrent with the rise of technology is the growth of cities, such as Hong Kong, China, above. One of the principal causes of increased atmospheric heat is the presence of cities, especially large cities, across most of the inhabited world.

Concurrent with the rise of technology is the growth of cities, such as Hong Kong, China, above. One of the principal causes of increased atmospheric heat is the presence of cities, especially large cities, across most of the inhabited world.

THE SEARCH FOR ALTERNATIVE ENERGY SOURCES

Because it is the use of hydrocarbon fuels that leads to carbon dioxide emissions and is the largest contributor to global climate change, it follows that finding alternative forms of energy that do not emit carbon to the same extent would represent the best means of abating future climate change. Further, the world’s reserves of hydrocarbon fuels are finite, and there is a need to develop alternatives if current and projected lifestyles are to be maintained in the future. It is not clear exactly when the reserves of oil will be depleted under current trends of usage, as it is possible (although increasingly less likely) that areas of significant previously unexploited reserves will be found, and probably more importantly, improvements in technology have made it possible to extract profitably existing reserves that have to date been too difficult or expensive to obtain. In addition, as the price of oil increases in general—and continues to increase as demand increases—with respect to supply, more and more known but problematic reserves will become commercially viable. Already, using oil-soaked earth in parts of Canada that were previously prohibitively expensive to process has become viable because of the effect of supply and demand. Other difficult-to-access reserves will, likewise, become more viable.

Nevertheless, although the figures are controversial and contested, it seems likely that all oil reserves will be exhausted within about 120 years, based on current rates of consumption. It is possible, although far from certain, that peak oil production has already been reached. Although declining supply relative to demand will stimulate some increased efficiency of use of oil, it is nevertheless clear that new forms of energy will need to be developed within the next few decades. Clean technologies such as wind and wave power are expected to make up an increasing part of a portfolio of alternative sources of energy. They already contribute significantly to the energy production of some European countries, although there are problems with nimbyism—or not in my back yard-ism—as people complain that wind turbines are unsightly and noisy. Solar panels have been used with moderate success in many parts of the world, particularly those areas with high levels of sunshine. However improvements in this technology are still needed. Photovoltaic cells have been used to collect power from the sun, and water pipes have been heated by placing them in the sun, but there is a need for more integrated solutions to ensure that a higher level of efficiency is achieved and also to reduce initial start-up costs, which may be high. This is likely to come about through regulation rather than market influences.

Other technologies that might be developed include the tapping of geothermal energy, which has been used for thousands of years in a nonsystematic manner, in the form of hot springs. There remains considerable scope for the further development of the use of geothermal energy on a more systematic basis. Hydroelectricity is a further form of alternative energy and it has been used effectively on many rivers. Countries such as China plan a massive increase in the number of hydroelectric stations, with attendant dams, on the rivers passing through its territory. This includes plans for as many as 12 dams on the River Mekong, for example. However this form of energy is problematic because of the effect on people living downstream of reduced flow of water and because of the effect of building large dams on the populations living in the vicinity, many of whom must be reset-tled—some of them forcibly. The ownership of a river passing through the territory of more than one country is also a problematic issue.

The one means of producing energy that is available without the consideration of geography is that of nuclear power. The technology involved is to employ certain heavy elements such as plutonium and uranium, which undergo atomic decay on a largely predictable manner, releasing considerable amounts of energy at the same time. A more advanced approach is to employ nuclear fission, which involves causing atoms to collide with each other so as to release more subatomic particles such as neutrons and, hence, more power. The amount of power, which is converted to electricity, that may be released through these processes is limited only by the availability of the appropriate heavy elements. These elements are scarce, and the existing amounts are controlled, although not always effectively. There is a need for control because of the radioactive nature of the substances involved, which makes them very dangerous to life, as well as the possibility that they may be used to create highly destructive nuclear bombs.

Many governments are planning to increase, perhaps quite significantly, their reliance on nuclear power. This causes problems because of the threat of an accident releasing nuclear material, as happened at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, causing thousands of deaths. The use of power plants in known earthquake zones is of particular concern. In addition, depleted uranium or other material, which is no longer productive, remains dangerously radioactive for many thousands of years, and it is not clear where that waste may be safely stored over the long term. There is also the potential problem that nations that develop nuclear power plants might also employ this knowledge and technology to develop nuclear weapons. One consequence of this is that there is widespread public concern about the use of nuclear energy and opposition to it in democratic countries. Even so, improvements in the technology of safety suggest that more governments will wish to augment their nuclear power production capacity and begin building new plants, knowing that it takes several years or more between deciding to construct such a plant and when power from it is ready to enter the grid.

MACROLEVEL TECHNOLOGY APPROACHES TO CLIMATE CHANGE ABATEMENT

Various macrolevel technologies have been suggested as a means of reducing climate change. These are generally very expensive and time-consuming to create and maintain and, hence, tend to be regarded as something of a last-ditch attempt. These technologies include placing large mirrors or reflective dust in space to absorb or reflect away the sun’s energy, or to use huge series of tubes leading to the ocean floor, through which excess heat energy may be circulated. Many of these ideas derive from the United States, which has a long tradition of optimism in terms of technology and also large firms and organizations possessing the kind of capital necessary to develop and, in time, implement such solutions. Because none of these solutions has, to date, been operationalized, it is not yet clear whether all or any of them will in fact be viable. Nevertheless, it is becoming clear that companies are starting to realize the market opportunities emerging for green or clean technologies. At the individual level, technology will be consumed by households to meet their own mandated requirements; for example, in terms of recycling or energy use reduction. At the state level, in contrast, public-sector support of megaprojects can provide sustained funding for a number of years sufficient to underwrite very large research and development operations. Because these technologies are not yet proven to be feasible and may be extremely expensive in practice, it would be much more cost-effective to make extensive use of micro-and mesolevel technologies immediately rather than waiting for a last-ditch attempt to maintain the planet as a place for human life. This will require some sacrifices in the short and medium terms.

TECHNOLOGY AND REGULATION

The Montreal Protocol of 1987, which helped to resolve the problem of atmospheric ozone depletion, demonstrated the ability of states to work together to solve transboundary environmental issues effectively. Market-based attempts to achieve similar goals, for example, through creating markets in tradable carbon emission permits, have foundered without a strong institutional shaping of the rules of the market and supervision of its activities. Technologists around the world have created numerous efficiencies that would help abate future climate change but that will only be implemented when state regulation requires it to be introduced. Just as the numbers of deaths from road traffic accidents was reduced (proportionate to the amount of traffic) after governments introduced legislation requiring safety belts to be worn, so too have buildings become more resistant to earthquakes after stricter building codes were introduced. In countries such as Germany, new regulations about energy production enable households under certain conditions to produce and sell their own power, such as that generated from solar power, online, for example. Good regulations provide appropriate incentives to encourage people to behave in the desired way and disincentives to dissuade people from behaving in undesired ways. The extent to which this can affect behavior and make measurable changes to energy use may be seen in California, where state-level legislation, transparently introduced over a sustained period, has ensured that energy use per capita has not increased in a number of years, despite the significant amount of electronic consumer goods owned per household.

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