Scientists say much can still be done to slow the speed of climate change. But when it comes to “climate solutions,” some are real, some aren’t, says Noomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University. “This space is really messed up,” he said.
So how does one figure out what it is? We asked six climate scientists for the questions they ask themselves every time they come up with something they say is a climate solution.
From the great sky the solution is clear
It may sound basic, but one big way to combat climate change is to reduce the main human activity that caused it in the first place: burning fossil fuels.
Physicists say it ultimately means a transition away from oil, coal and gas and more efficient energy. We already need a lot of technology to make this transition, like solar, wind and batteries, Oreskes says.
“What we need to do now is that the technologies already exist, they work and are cost competitive, and that essentially means renewable energy and storage,” he says.
Think about who is selling the solution to you
It’s important to think about both who is selling the climate solution and what they say is the problem, says Melissa Aronczyk, a media professor at Rutgers University.
“People like to come up with solutions, but what they do is they usually interpret the problem so that they need it,” he says.
Oreskes says to pay attention when you see a climate solution that means increasing the use of fossil fuels. He gives an example of natural gas being sold as a “bridge fuel” from coal to renewable energy. But natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and its production, transportation and use emit methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
“I think we need to look at what happens when the fossil fuel industry comes up with solutions, because this is the biggest potential for a conflict of interest,” Aronczyk says.
The solution may sound promising, but is it currently available and scalable?
Sometimes you hear about promising new technologies like carbon capture, which stores carbon dioxide out of the air and underground, says David Ho, a professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Ho researches climate solutions and says ask yourself: is this technology available, affordable or scalable now?
“I think people who don’t work in this space think we have all these technologies ready to remove carbon dioxide from the air.
If it adds emissions, it is not a climate solution
These days all kinds of companies, from airlines to wedding dress companies, might offer to buy “carbon credits” with your purchase. That money offset could do something like build a new wind farm or plant trees, which – in theory – absorb and store carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to taking a flight or making new clothes.
But there are often problems with the establishment and confirmation of exports, says Roberto Schaeffer, a professor of energy economics at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. “It’s dangerous, it’s very dangerous,” he said.
He says that when cuttings from forests, it is difficult to know if the trees are really protected, those trees were not cut down or burned in a wild fire.
“Well, ‘Well, you’ve planted a tree around your clothes.’
If you think emissions should be fixed, and the offset doesn’t work, that doubles emissions, says Adrienne Buller, a climate researcher and director of research at Common Substances, a think tank in Britain, “It’s like a double whammy.
If the solution sounds too easy, be skeptical
Many things sold as carbon offsets — like restoring or protecting forests — are, in their own right, the biggest climate solutions, Buller says. “We need trees like that,” he says, “to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.”
The problem is when carbon markets sell the idea that you can keep emitting the trend and everything will be fine if you just buy the offset, Buller says. “It’s the kind of solution that implies that we don’t have to do a lot of work. We can just make some small tweaks to the way we’re doing things now,” he said.
Schaeffer says there is a lot of work in our future to get off fossil fuels and into clean energy sources. “So people know it’s worth hanging out here. No one gets a free lunch.”
There is nothing wrong with everything. Governments must play a role in solutions, too
We often think about businesses working on their own climate solutions, but it often doesn’t happen, says Oreskes. Government often plays a large role in funding and supporting research into new climate technologies, says June Sekera, a visiting scholar at The New School who studies public policy and climate.
And governments will also have to play a big role in controlling emissions, says Schaeffer, who has worked with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for 25 years.
That’s why all the students NPR spoke with for this story say the climate solution is important to vote for.
Schaeffer points to the recent election in Brazil, where climate change was a major campaign issue for candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula won and promised to address deforestation, a major source of Brazil’s emissions.
There is no one solution to climate change, and no one can do it alone
Aronczyk wants to make one thing clear: there is no one one a solution to climate change.
“We are human beings. We have a problem, we want to solve this problem,” says Aronczyk, “But just like there is no way to describe climate change, there is no way to provide a solution.”
Climate solutions will take different forms, Sekera says. Some solutions can slow climate change, some offer us ways to adapt.
The key, says Aronczyk, is that climate solutions involve governments, businesses and individuals. He says: “Everything is hand-decorated in general condition.”
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