Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment and Development magazine

Defying Nature Can Buy Time, But Does Not Save the Environment

Can technology alone stop the collapse of natural systems, without addressing the root of the problem and changing production and consumption patterns? This question surfaces whenever scientists announce a breakthrough such as developing genetically modified plants and animals to withstand climate change, conduct experiments to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, develop new technologies for desalination and producing artificial snow, all the way to the discovery of frozen water on the surface of Mars.

The impact of these scientific achievements, despite their importance, will not go beyond buying time, unless they are accompanied by firm measures to stop wasting and polluting limited resources. But it is the nature of consumer societies to buy time in order to delay the inevitable change in lifestyle and consumption patterns.

Former US climate envoy John Kerry expressed this outlook when he called for climate solutions solely based on technology, because it was impossible to impose a change in lifestyles on consumers. This reflects politicians’ fear of confronting populist campaigns, which describe policies regulating consumption patterns as interfering with personal freedoms.

Let us also not forget Donald Trump’s campaign theme against restrictions on single-use plastic and water fixtures in bathrooms and kitchens, and his famous phrase that water-saving showers do not suit his “beautiful” hair. Let alone the opposition to any restrictions on the production of beef, responsible for the largest amount of “methane” emissions, the most powerful greenhouse gas - as if the “American way of life” could only be achieved by eating hamburger every day.

I recalled all this as I was reading about the first outdoor test of technology designed to brighten clouds and bounce some of the sun’s rays back into space. A device resembling a snow maker shoots a fine mist of tiny aerosol particles traveling through the air, a way of temporarily cooling a planet that is now dangerously overheating. The scientists wanted to see whether the machine that took years to create could consistently spray the right size salt aerosols through the open air, outside of a lab.

However, if marine cloud brightening were used at a scale that could cool the planet, the consequences would be hard to predict, or even to measure. This may change climatic patterns, not just over the sea, but over land as well, and constitutes a scary vision of the future. Cloud brightening could also alter precipitation patterns, reducing rainfall in one place while increasing it elsewhere, with unpredictable changes in the patterns of storms and hurricanes.

The scientists behind this marine cloud brightening program believe that even if it proves successful, it is merely a way of buying time while waiting for the only sustainable solution, which is reducing emissions that cause global warming. But the continued delay in achieving commitments to limit the increase in global temperature above 1.5 degrees Celsius is what triggered the search for a temporary alternative, amounting to human intervention to modify climate systems. However, artificial blocking of the sun is not a substitute for reducing emissions, which requires accepting and applying the principle of modifying production and consumption patterns.

Sprinkling artificial snow over ski slopes that climate change has turned into barren mountains is another example of buying time. Here we are talking about the Alps, which boast the most famous winter resorts in the world, and where the ski season was considered largely stable. It was possible for anyone who booked a ski holiday at one resort during the season to purchase a cheap insurance policy to compensate for the lack of good quality snow in emergency situations. This has all become a thing of the past, as what was unprecedented or rare has become the new normal, from the Swiss Alps to the Austrian, French and Italian slopes. Snow-making machines have become the only solution to keep some resorts open long enough to cover their expenses.

A famous resort near the Swiss city of Bern announced last month that it would permanently close its slopes after the number of natural snow days suitable for skiing decreased to less than ten days a year. Over twenty ski resorts in France and Italy had already closed over the past years once even artificial snow was no longer a viable solution due to melting under continuing rising temperatures.

Skiing in the Austrian Alps is limited to high altitudes, with the intermediate slopes closed for long days during the traditional season. The widespread use of artificial snow also faces opposition in these countries due to its effects on water resources, energy consumption and pollution. This shows that it will be inevitable to shift to other activities like mountain hiking and biking.

Measures such as turning clouds into “mirrors” that reflect the sun, sprinkling artificial snow on ski slopes, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere may be inevitable in the face of the rapid rise in temperature and a temporary solution to extend some human activities for an additional period. But they are all just buying time as only radical measures that put an end to emissions of greenhouse gases, resource depletion, and pollution will stop the disaster.

Respecting nature does not mean submitting to it, but rather working with it and not defying its rules and limits. Successes in technology cannot compensate for the failure of public policies.