Climate change – ‘tech’ is the enemy

by | 5 Nov 2021

It is time to stop being sceptical about the promises of tech solutions to climate change and start being utterly cynical - because it's a con designed to prevent real action

The further I get away from my visit to COP26, the more cynical I am feeling about it. There is a fundamental mistake about the entire way it is being approached and to understand it the key is to understand that ‘new technology’ is not the friend of climate action.

The problem with COP’s approach is that it seems to see the future as identical to the past but with specific component parts switched in and out. We will still travel like we do, but in electric vehicles. We will still consume like we do, but with more recycling. We will still waste enormous amounts of energy like we do, but more of it will be from renewable sources. And above all we will still consume natural resources like we do, but we’ll plant trees to make up for it.

This is the direct equivalent of the Victorians who thought we’d go to the moon in a hot air balloon – it is seeing the future as a slightly modified version of the present, and of course the future never looks like that. (The modern car looks nothing like a horseless horse-and-cart but that’s what the first cars were built to look like.)

But this time it’s not human cognitive bias, it is highly, highly political. To understand this fully it is helpful to understand the role of Bill Gates. It is really worth reading this article if you still think Bill Gates is a good guy, but I’ll give you a very rough summary here.

Bill Gates is a far-end, seriously hard-core right-winger on the economy. Since his very early business experiences in the 1970s he has been adamant that the state should have no role in the economy – he opposes all sorts of regulatory and policy interventions.

In his version of the world the ‘innovators’ and ‘wealth creators’ should be entirely free to make as much money as they possibly can and no-one should get in their way. But then (for him) it is the super-wealthy who should take on the role that governments do, handing out charity to those in need.

Bill Gates’ philanthropy is highly political in precisely this manner. His Foundation’s ‘medicines for the poor’ went hand-in-hand with strenuous lobbying on his part to prevent the Make Poverty History movement from weakening corporate intellectual property rights. In his view available medicines for Africa should be his and Jeff Bezos’s responsibility, not legislators.

There are basically two versions of tackling climate change, the Gates vision and the Green New Deal vision

But if this has had a negative impact on the Global South, it is nothing compared to what he did during the pandemic. At the very start of the pandemic there was sudden and very serious international pressure to suspend pharmaceutical companies’ patents on Covid medicines. There was a real chance this could have happened, meaning the Global South could have manufactured its own medicines cheaply.

Gates was the primary figure in blocking this from happening. Working closely with Big Pharma, Gates negotiated an alternative scheme known as COVAX in which vaccine deals with poor countries would be subsidised through donations and by the sale of vaccines to richer countries. This is exactly the hard-core free-market-with-philanthropy ideology he has used much of his wealth to promote.

And of course he won completely – the patent suspension proposals were defeated and COVAX was set up. Of course, COVAX has failed so completely to deliver on its promises that the Gates Foundation has recently U-turned and now supports a partial suspension of patents.

Too late of course – the dead are dead and we’re now starting from where we should have been nearly two years ago.

This is why when people talk about how ‘Bill Gates’ is certain there is a tech solution to climate change you should be beyond sceptical. There are basically two versions of tackling climate change, the Gates vision and the Green New Deal vision.

The Gates vision is precisely the ‘continuity with substitution’ model I have suggested is dominating COP (and indeed the political arguments in most countries, including Scotland). It relies on promises by the rich (particularly Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs) that if you just trust them and don’t do anything else, it’ll all be fine.

The alternative vision is fairly straightforward – we already have almost all the technologies to beat climate change today but we need to deliver them through collective state action paid for through a package of tax and monetary policy and we need to accept that certain aspects of our lifestyles need to change. Not get worse, but change.

That is the real battle that is being fought globally for climate change. It is between the collective action of a society or the market actions of the rich. Or more accurately, between collective action and the promise (no more) of some kind of miracle delivery by the rich.

It is garbage. The same people who are lauding Gates for his optimism today were also lauding Gates as the pandemic saviour of Africa. The problem is that Gates’ ideology offers no guarantees, no money-back promises and (absolutely crucially) not even any firm timetables. It. Will. Just. Be. OK.

Of course, this time when we discover it isn’t going to work it could well be too late to save ourselves. Gates’ is nearing 70 and with his wealth he will never feel the consequences.

Tech solutionism is the new climate change denial. Don’t fall for it.

I have lost faith in the ‘global community’ to do anything about this in anything like the timescales needed. I have also lost faith in the Scottish Government to do anything more than set targets which even the First Minister accepts are meaningless. I lose more faith in public debate in Scotland every time I hear the letters CCS.

Make zero mistake about this, Carbon Capture and Storage has never worked, does not work now and will never work in the future. It is ‘COVAX’ for the oil industry, a ruse to make doing precisely the wrong thing look a little bit like doing the right thing. It WILL fail. The vast majority of the tech promises ahead WILL fail.

Four years ago I spoke to a senior figure who swore blind that the technology to extract carbon from the atmosphere would be financial viable within the year. He knew, because he had seen it in detail and was on some committee or another that was offering rewards for achieving this and they were on the verge of paying out. Everyone else in the room probably thought that was real. But clearly it wasn’t.

Insulate houses, move to electric vehicles, build more renewable energy and energy storage, change how we produce food, rewild Scotland, change our pattern of consumption and stop burning oil and gas. That’s it. That sorts Scotland’s climate change impact almost completely.

When you hear someone talking about CCS but not talking about mass house insulation, you know they’re at it. Because when you hear someone talking about ‘tech solutions’ which are going to let us change without change, they’re almost certainly selling you something else instead.

Tech solutionism is the new climate change denial. Don’t fall for it.

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