What's the Answer to Climate Change?

It’s not enough to let the market handle it or depend on geo-engineering.

Momatiuk - Eastcott / Corbis / Zak Bickel / Kara Gordon / The Atlantic

A&Q is a special series that inverts the classic Q&A, taking some of the most frequently posed solutions to pressing matters of policy and exploring their complexity.

There is one convenient thing about climate change: The problem of global warming poses so many threats, and emerges from so many causes, that there’s not one single solution for it.

This is convenient because it means you can work on a lot of different angles and still help the underlying problem. If every American stopped eating meat tomorrow, the situation would immediately begin to improve but it wouldn’t be solved; ditto if every coal plant worldwide was shut down tomorrow. Even in that crazy-go-nuts mitigation scenario, we’d immediately be a lot better off, but there would still be work to do.

So thinking about climate change requires a two-mindedness among those who want to pitch in to work against it—or who just want to be educated voters on their city, country, or planet. On the one hand, we have reached the point where climate change will arrive regardless of what we do. Climate change is vast, hopeless, horrifying, anxiety-inducing, and imagination-staggering. On the other, it’s a challenge without parallel in human history: a vast, fascinating, thrilling, inspiring, mind-bending opportunity.

Many revere the Enlightenment thinkers for turning the high ideals of equality and justice into concrete political institutions (even as they and their contemporaries invented race and justified chattel slavery). But if converting ideals into institutions is an admirable challenge, don’t worry: Now we have to do it too. On a global scale. Inventing as we go. No biggie.

How big is the problem? Here is the basic climate-change mechanism: Cars, trucks, planes, power plants, factories, and farming techniques release certain gases into the atmosphere; these gases build up over time and trap more heat than other kinds of gases would; this extra warmth forces the climate—the sum of weather everywhere—to change, making it more energetic (since heat is just energy) and wily and destructive.

Now, some scientists disagree over how bad climate change has already gotten, and some claim that pre-2100 global warming will be much worse than predicated, but neither of those disagreements are about the general principle—and the general principle is what matters when it comes to addressing climate change with policy.

So that’s the problem. How might we solve it?


Climate change is finally getting solved. Last year, 189 nations adopted the Paris Agreement, the first treaty to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that includes not only the rich West but the rapidly industrializing East (namely China and India). It’s not perfect, but it will send a “a critical message to the global marketplace,” to quote Secretary of State John Kerry, that it’s time to pull out long-term investment in fossil fuel companies.


That first part is unmistakably true: We are living the first hopeful years for

climate change in memory. But maybe the Paris Agreement only seems optimistic when it’s compared to the recent past, when the world—and especially the United States—did almost nothing to stop the warming atmosphere. Examine the details of this recent progress and it still looks pretty paltry.

The Paris Agreement talks an ambitious game, but it has no mechanism to force anyone to do anything. And given the fragility of the domestic politics here in America, where the EPA’s signature climate-change regulation was just stopped, what’s to keep the United States from reneging on its larger Paris promise? And if the United States backs out, won’t China and India follow?


But it doesn’t even matter if the United States fulfills its plan, though. The cost of clean power is plunging. Soon, solar could be as cheap or cheaper than natural gas—it already is in some places.


Sure, but there’s no rule preventing clean power and dirty fossil fuels from co-existing. Check the situation in Texas, where wind generated more than 10 percent of the energy mix last year—but coal constituted 36 percent. And even when the news on climate seems wholly good, it somewhat relies on White House-supported policies. For instance, lots of Americans are building rooftop solar panels on their houses with the help of the recently extended federal solar-tax credit. Yet Nevada once had a friendly solar policy too—until earlier this year, when it reversed them and literally made solar taxes retroactive.

Will future administrations help bring clean energy into the world as much as the current one has? Some of the cost reductions in solar and wind power have come from government-research funding, after all. If the United States stops implementing its climate policies, will the cost of solar and wind creep up again?


The problem isn’t just climate change—it’s ceaseless growth. If people ever want to live in symbiosis with the environment, they have to kick our 200-year addiction to growth and also probably capitalism. In the short term, they’ll also have to cut back steeply to keep places like Bangladesh from drowning.


Some (but not all) environmentalists are beginning to argue a line like this. It’s a line with little partisan shading, at least here in the U.S.: Neither Democrats nor Republicans support contracting the economy. It’s also a view with many advocates but without a consistent policy. You can find de-growthism in many forms: Naomi Klein advocates for a kind of global socialism, while others imply that drastic, short-term cuts are the only way will curtail carbon emissions fast enough.

In today’s populist political climate, are such cuts possible—even on the multi-decade level? Will Americans be able to live with the consequences of such cuts, much less accept or sustain them?

Even anti-growth advocates are honest about their fall-out: “Not only will our standards of living almost certainly drop, but it’s likely that the very quality of our society—equality, safety, and trust—will decline, too,” writes Daniel Immerwahr, in an article calling for the abandonment of growth. In a country with both entrenched, institutional racism and a nuclear-armed military, who will suffer most from that decline?


The market will solve this problem, just like it solved expensive air travel, pre-Internet communication, and the sleeveless blanket.


As Republicans try to criticize climate regulation while accepting climate science, they turn to some variant of this line. I think there are two knocks against it—one more facile than the other.

The first is that, you know, if private industry was going to step up and address the climate crisis, it maybe should have done it already. Greenland’s ice sheet is sliding toward the sea, and Miami Beach is a lost cause: Where is the market?

But worse, I think, is that this is more or less the tack that governments have chosen to take. Governments have incentivized some pathways to green energy more than others, but the world’s approach is to move some assets around—to send that “critical message to the global marketplace”—and then tell business to figure the rest out. Is that process working fast enough? Should the residents of small Pacific islands, vulnerable to sea-level rise, be satisfied with the progress of the markets?

Would the market move faster if it didn’t get these signals? The evidence so far, by the way, seems to prove the opposite. When the Obama administration set new fuel-efficiency standards for cars in 2012, manufacturers welcomed the move. A single, shared standard let all companies compete on the same framework and gave them investment targets to plan on. Would they have made the same improvements—which have resulted in greenhouse-gas savings equal to the Clean Power Plan—if they weren’t pressed?


We shouldn’t even worry about these questions now. Geo-engineering will fix this for us: Using negative emissions technologies, we’ll suck carbon out of the atmosphere; and until we perfect that technique, we’ll depress global temperatures by seeding the atmosphere with sulfate aerosols.


Let’s look at sulfates first: They’re chemicals that would depress global temperatures for about 10 years and, in the meantime, reflect enough sunlight away to stave off some warming. Who should get to decide it’s time to release them? How should we geo-engineer the planet in ways that are democratic? Which percentage of countries should get to decide how weather in all countries works? What if some countries declare that they can never support such a technology? Oliver Morton, an Economist editor who wrote a book on geo-engineering, has told The Atlantic that he worries far more about politics than the techniques themselves:

What I really worry about with geoengineering is that conflict over its use will lead to a greater conflict that leads to a nuclear war […] because we don't even know if anyone's going to try geoengineering, but we know the wherewithal to have a nuclear war is out there in the world already.

And what about carbon-scrubbing the troposphere? In some ways, it’s easier than sulfate deployment, as more countries and companies might get behind returning the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels. But the most promising method—carbon capture and storage—isn’t ready for industrial deployment yet. How much should we risk the health of the planet for an unproven commercial technique?

Indeed, an Oxford University study found that the most efficient way to remove carbon from the atmosphere in the next 50 years isn’t some fancy technology. It’s trees.

* * *

This is only a tour of some of the solutions to climate change floating around. None is both adequate and likely. So maybe it’s better to think in terms of management: How can the crisis be slowed, halted, and reversed as soon as possible? And how can you use your time and attention to help humanity along that path?

What’s the role of individuals in fighting climate change? Should they change their own routines to reduce their emissions, cutting red meat and dairy—however small those consequent savings may be—or is that kind of activism meaningless compared to political involvement?

“Growth” is now a mandate for American politicians, even as the country’s natural rate of growth seems to be slowing. But is the improvement of quality-of-life for most people best measured through gross domestic product? As the climate warms, should we find aims other than constant growth in order to sustain a healthy society and livable planet?

What kind of society and democratic government will be best positioned to handle resource scarcity and the sequential emergencies associated with the now-inevitable consequences of climate change? How can we bring about that society? What kind of global governance will be needed?

And most important of all: Can the world both manage climate change and avoid its worst cataclysms, like hideous famines, mass migrations, surveillance-powered authoritarians, and World War III?

Maybe there’s an answer we haven’t considered yet. Drop your thoughts into an email to hello@theatlantic.com.