Opinion: The empty utopia of technology and climate change

John Hess is a senior political science major. Contact him at jhess14@kent.edu.

John Hess is a senior political science major. Contact him at [email protected]

John Hess

Last week the Kent Stater published a guest column from the Orange County Register that heralded changes to the “climate debate” in light of potential technological advances. Though I was fascinated, I was also skeptical. Some research confirmed my suspicions. The OC Register’s editorial board is famously opposed to policies aimed at addressing climate change and denies the scientific consensus on the crisis’ human origins. They have consistently danced around the subject, calling climate change a “non-threat” and implicitly questioning the link between CO2 and global warming.

The OC Register bemoans difficulties with “the science,” putting quotation marks around “anthropogenic global warming” (human-caused climate change) and lamenting “stale debates about capping emissions.” Never fear! Elon Musk and his fellow engineer-entrepreneurs will save the day with mass transit, futuristic photovoltaics, and geoengineering! The OC Register concludes that it isn’t “how we need to live, but how we want to live.”

Why is a board that denies climate change excited about solutions to it? Simply put, it’s because they’re lying. They mislead the reader through vagueness and omission, as well as more straightforward means like the complete misrepresentation of a recent National Academy of Sciences report. The OC Register is a mouthpiece for groups (i.e., oil companies) fighting California emissions standards and other environmental protections. It comforts readers, allowing them to maintain their lifestyles with the firm, if baseless, belief that nothing is wrong.

They do this by invoking techno-optimism, or the idea that technological advancement will necessarily lead to a utopian future. Today we have a magical conception of technological development as a one-way process that carries us constantly toward a brighter tomorrow.

Technology unfortunately has drawbacks, climate change being just one, and the tech cited by The OC Register that’s supposed to save us is years or decades away, if ever. The OC Register and others would have us waiting indefinitely for a solution that may never come. The longer we wait, the longer fossil fuel companies, and those who depend on them for economic and political support, will have to run up a massive ecological debt they have no intention or ability to repay.

Let’s examine The OC Register’s logic in another setting. Google has been working on a self-driving car for years. These vehicles could potentially revolutionize transportation. Like the innovations mentioned by The OC Register, this technology thrills us. Also like those technologies, self-driving cars for mass consumption remain out of our reach. And yet no one is calling for the end of traffic laws. No one laments the stale stoplight debate. In this context we have the sense to wait for the technology and then reassess our policies. The OC Register would rather we put the cart before the horse, risking the future of our planet and our species on a wild gamble.

We can’t allow ourselves to be lulled into a comfortable daze. Truth isn’t always comforting. Elites will not always save us—in fact they will likely work against us—but that inconvenience does not diminish or negate the truth. We need to act now to stop climate change, and we should pursue every means at our disposal to do that. The OC Register is wrong. It does matter how we live. Only a child imagines that their actions have no consequences. As our technology continues to advance and mature, we need our minds, our values and, most importantly, our political and economic institutions to change to reflect that maturity.