I’m sure I’m not the only one who occasionally contemplates the similarities between the current pandemic and the greatest threat we face, climate change.
Much of what has happened over the past few years has plunged me into spirals of desperation for the future, horrified by political venality and lack of global cooperation, or in hope following the successes of the pharmaceutical industry. But the analogy does not go further – because on a very important point there is a difference. There is no vaccine against climate change.
Of course, like many, I have my wishful thinking. Certain technologies will come to save us. Despite the global failures to make the changes to reduce emissions levels so far, something like a deus ex machina will make a difference and mean we won’t have to work hard in the gargantuan task of changing our transportations. , our heating, our buildings, the way we grow and produce food. We will be able to come back as before. Less developed countries or communities that never had this ‘way it was’ in the first place, may have it too.
But of course, there is no solution like that. There is no vaccine. Climate is a very different and more complex issue, as is the larger ecological crisis.
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There are, of course, concepts that sound like a vaccine-like mega-solution: wild and risky ideas like aerosols of sulphate from cannon in the atmosphere to obscure the sun. Then there is the standard technology solution upon which much hope rests, carbon capture and storage, which still fills the void in many net zero plans, although there are many doubts that it can. be developed on the scale needed to do more than tackle the hardest to decarbonize industries.
I am not against technology as a tool. A giant toolbox of technological solutions is clearly needed to help us solve the problem, as well as what are now called nature-based solutions. Technologies like solar and wind power have already brought us a long way. But any fix so big that it allows us to continue to burn fossil fuels will likely come at another cost.
One solution I’ve been thinking about, hopefully lately, has been that artificial intelligence can solve the problem. The brain of the big machine will take all of this complexity associated with biodiversity and climate crises and create solutions. This wishful thinking, I realized, listening to Stuart Russell’s recent Reith lectures on artificial intelligence, is obviously rooted in a naïve sense of where AI’s potential lies.
Russell’s fascinating lectures threw cold water on any hope that AI could be that deus ex machina for climate control. In a response to a question on the subject, Russell said, “A lot of people think AI will be the thing that solves the climate problem. I do not believe it at all. I think the climate problem is ours. It’s what economists call a coordination problem, and no one wants to be the first to make all the sacrifices when other countries are busy pumping out carbon dioxide. That said, Russell recognizes that AI could help us improve some processes, efficiency, for example recycling. And I have seen for myself how AI is widely presented as a tool: used, for example, with satellite imagery in estimating carbon stocks to inform land management decisions and calculate offsets. carbon.
But caution is always in order. With all our tools, we must be alert to unforeseen negative impacts. If we are to use AI, we have to take into account the emissions produced by the technology itself, which are notoriously substantial. An article from the University of Massachusetts Amherst estimated that the carbon footprint of forming a single large AI model creates emissions equivalent to 125 round-trip flights between New York and Beijing.
A report titled Climate Change and AI, presented at COP26, listed, among its suggestions, that governments integrate climate impact considerations into the regulation of AI.
“AI,” wrote its authors, “must be developed responsibly in all settings. In the context of climate action, responsible AI means rejecting “techno-solutionism” and not exaggerating its potential. This means not to underestimate its risks and drawbacks.
Problems like this hover around most technology fixes. Most of us know there is no magic solution. The vaccine against the climate crisis is an overhaul of our relationship with the environment, a revolution in the relationship between humans and the complex living and non-living world of which we are a part. It is that we create a way of producing which is no longer guided by the main goal of profit; we do the little things as well as the big things; we work hard on behalf of our children. We are not waiting for the quick fix.