The refrain comes up all the time. “When are we going to solve climate change?” “We need to come up with a solution to climate change!” “There’s still time to fix climate change!”
The positive attitude is spot-on. But the phrasing is misleading, and possibly damaging.
Human activity has warmed the planet by 1.1°C since preindustrial times. At 1.1°C of warming, the world is already locked into intensified heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, water scarcity, food shortages and price spikes; severe impacts for farming and fishing livelihoods; mass species extinctions; mass coral bleaching; mass ice melt; decline in trees and carbon storage from tropical rainforests, and a whole lot more. The impact of climate change is here and visible right now. No amount of clean energy or forest conservation is going to “solve” that.
At 1.5°C of warming, which climate experts often cite as a goal, the list of locked-in consequences gets longer. Coral reefs can’t adapt, outdoor labor in some regions becomes untenable, tourism and travel patterns change, water shortages lead to population displacement, and numbers of species are driven to extinction. Again, no amount of cutting carbon emissions changes these results once global warming has reached 1.5°C.
And yet humanity is not doomed. Far from it, in fact. No, we cannot “solve climate change” and make it go away in our lifetimes. But we can get climate change under control.
Climate solutions fall into three broad categories: mitigation, adaptation, and geoengineering. Mitigation includes anything that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, including clean energy and energy efficiency. Imagine climate change as a really bad paper cut. Mitigation would be like cleaning and disinfecting the wound to stop the bleeding — a really important step, but the cut would still be there.
Ideally, mitigation would be coupled with other solutions. Adaptation refers to strategies that help people live more comfortably in a warmer world, including seawalls, drought-resistant crops, and relocation. These steps would be like putting on a bandage — we adapt to the fact that we have a cut until the cut heals itself.
The third category is geoengineering, which involves human measures that actively change the climate. These include such technological innovations as scrubbing carbon emissions from power plants, using large machines to suck carbon out of thin air and store it, and spraying aerosols to block out sunlight. The term also encompasses such natural solutions as planting trees and seagrass. Geoengineering would be like putting on a new ointment that’s still in FDA testing — it might speed up the healing process, but it also might create unexpected problems.
At The Sweaty Penguin, our team recently had the opportunity to collaborate with the Solutions Journalism Network on three climate solutions: lab-grown meat, solar power, and carbon capture. Lab-grown meat is a pie-in-the-sky idea to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (and perhaps ethical concerns) from animal farming, and while the idea seems unlikely to replace conventional meat, there is a possibility that lab-grown meat could eventually become a competitor in the market. Solar power is a much more clear-cut approach to reducing energy emissions. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report found that solar energy could cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 2 billion tons annually — while saving money. Carbon capture is an umbrella term for several ideas still in development. The concept shows potential for neutralizing greenhouse gas emissions that are too difficult to cut outright. These solutions are at very different stages of development and implementation. Our three podcast episodes examine the limitations of these solutions and how they might be made more practical.
Occasionally, I see an article on my Facebook feed saying, “This Company Is Solving Climate Change by Doing [insert solution here].” I find these stories fun, but also extremely frustrating. No one solution — even solar power — can “solve climate change.” Even one category of solutions — mitigation, adaptation, or geoengineering — will not be enough to manage climate change. The world has an endless list of options for climate action, many of which are already in progress. But it will require a lot more than one step to get climate change under control.
I believe most people understand this concept. To read an overly peppy headline that implies the existence of a magic bullet solution can quickly feel overwhelming. People may think to themselves, “Really? That’s the best we can do? I know that’s not going to work.” A more realistic approach might be to look at each solution’s imperfections, consider ways to improve upon them, and most importantly, to remember that the expectation for any one solution cannot be to “solve climate change.” It is one piece of a much larger effort whose goal, ultimately, is not to solve climate change but to manage the problem and work together to prevent future damage. With this simple reframing, any climate solution — from solar energy to making steak out of stem cells in a petri dish — suddenly looks a lot more hopeful.