This week: What can we do to save the planet? And how will the world end? Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
The stories this week
Other stories we bring up
Wright, C. and Nyberg, D. (2015) Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mann, M. and Toles, T. (2016) The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy, New York, Columbia University Press.
Wright, C. and Nyberg, D. (2017) ‘An Inconvenient Truth: How Organizations Translate Climate Change into Business as Usual‘, Academy of Management Journal, 60(5): 1633-61. (attached)
McKibben, B. (2012) ‘The Reckoning‘, Rolling Stone, 1162: 52-58,60.
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Intro This is The Future This Week on Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter, and I'm Kai Riemer. And every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful, and things that change the world. Okay, let's start. Let's start!
Kai Today on The Future, This Week: what can we do to save the planet, and how will the world end?
Sandra I'm Sandra Peter, I'm the Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai I'm Kai Riemer, professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group. So, strike’s over.
Sandra Strike’s over, there was a global mass day of action on Friday the 20th. And that was in anticipation of this week's United Nations climate summit in New York. And we're back with our special guest...
Kai Chris Wright, still with us. Chris, who are you?
Chris I'm a professor of organisation studies at the Business School here at University of Sydney, and my research passion, I guess, is the political economy of climate change. So that's what I study and research.
Kai So a timely guest, it's almost like we planned this. What should we do?
Chris Well I can talk about some of the stuff I research, and some of the craziness that surrounds the whole climate crisis which is where we really are now. So one of the studies I research is the Great Barrier Reef, and the coral bleaching that's occurred there over recent summers with unseasonably warm water, and I'm sort of interested in how the local people and the politicians make sense of and try to justify the unjustifiable, which is the demise of one of the largest living organisms on the planet. And so what strikes me is this bizarre disconnect between the politics of climate change the political discussion about climate change and the science, and the science is pretty unequivocal in terms of where we're heading. So that's what I really like to try and unpack, and I run into people who try to sort of explain how they make sense of the climate crisis.
Kai The good thing about Climate Week is that there's been a lot of stories, more than we can possibly do, so which ones are we going to look at? So probably you know what we can do about this, right. So I think that should be the focus. I think we're pretty much settled that this is happening so...
Sandra Yep, So maybe the Time article on 'lifestyle changes that aren't enough to save our planet'.
Kai Yeah I think that's a good one. There's a whole bunch we can bring on the back of that, there's stories about the fossil fuel industry. There's been the attack on the Saudi Arabian petrol refinery. So that's coming up. So there's definitely an industry angle.
Sandra And Chris we've been talking earlier about all this apocalypse stories that are cropping up this week as well. There has been all sorts of doom and gloom end of the earth, end of the days, so maybe do that one as well.
Chris Okay sounds good.
Kai So here's a warning. This is not going to be an all cheerful episode.
Chris Yeah, well, doom and gloom with climate change.
Kai So Sandra what happen in the future this week?
Sandra Our first story comes from our guest, it's titled "Lifestyle changes aren't enough to save the planet. Here's what we could do", and it's from TIME magazine's special edition on climate change. So Chris what's that about?
Chris Well it's a piece authored by US climate scientist Michael Mann from Penn State University who's very active in the need to confront the climate crisis and he makes the very valid point that despite a lot of public attention, I guess, on reducing our individual carbon footprints, eating less meat, flying less often or not flying at all, that those individual actions aren't sufficient to actually deal with the climate crisis and the need for systemic changes in the way that the global economy operates. And so we need to sort of focus on those systemic level changes.
Sandra So whilst there's this pressure for us to think about the everyday choices that we make, whether we turn the lights on, or whether we eat hamburgers or not, whether indeed we have bacon with our breakfast, whether or not we fly to our next conference and so on, the argument here is really about what we need is change at a much bigger level and systemic change.
Kai And this is not a new phenomenon. We know this from other fields like tobacco, right. Quitting smoking is not easy so it needs systemic change, it needs regulation of the industry, it needs taxation, it needs a whole bunch of things, we know this from research into obesity and health-related effects, education, there's all kinds of fields in which it has been shown that just nudging the individual is not enough. We have to actually change the system in which individuals make their choices.
Chris Yeah indeed. And the fact that we've known about the growing climate crisis that our growing greenhouse gas emissions were contributing to a human perturbation to the carbon cycle in the climate system, we've known about that in science for over a century, probably a century and a half. Politically, it became apparent in the late 1980s in the US. And the problem has been that the fossil fuel industry has played a very clever political game. What some term a sort of process of predatory delay, in which they have seeded the concept of doubt about the physical phenomenon of climate change.
Kai That's straight out of the tobacco playbook, right?.
Chris Totally out of tobacco playbook and in fact some researchers from Harvard and other places have talked about the same scientists being involved in the tobacco delay that has played out in the fossil fuel climate debate. And so the companies like ExxonMobil for instance knew from the late 1970s exactly what the problem would be, what the impact would be of continued oil coal and gas exploitation, and their internal scientists actually mapped where the global concentrations of greenhouse gases, carbon CO2 would be in the atmosphere, you know, 40 years into the future in 2019, and in fact that's exactly where we are today, around 450 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere. So those companies knew what was happening but they chose instead to fund the creation of an organised climate change denial industry, and think tanks, and political lobbying and revolving doors which have basically prevented the world's most powerful economy from undertaking a systemic decarbonisation approach. And now we're at a stage where it is quite late in the day in terms of radically decarbonising the global economy.
Kai And instead of action we have Trump.
Chris Yeah. That was very much a step backwards. He came to power and he is basically not only planning to pull America out of the Paris Climate Agreement but he's wound back a lot of domestic US requirements around the exploitation of new coal oil and gas, the US energy system doubling down on coal, a whole range of initiatives, which are taking a step back from where we need to go.
Sandra Why do you then think the public conversation is still around us as consumers first, and us needing to make individual choices rather than systemic political choices? If you look at a lot of the articles that we read up in the lead up to the UN climate meeting, we've seen a lot of discussion about the individual choices that we all must make, whether it's around plastic bags or around lights, around our transport, around using renewable energy sources, but it's been very much a consumer first conversation rather than the political systemic conversation.
Chris You're spot on there and it's an expression of the ruling political economy of the global world really, isn't it? It's this idea that individuals and consumers are the key units of sort of decision making in action. And it's very much an expression of neoliberalism, the idea that consumers and markets are the response to any problematic social issue. So rather than seeing climate change as a collective action problem, it's seen as something that we will respond to in terms of the products we buy, whether it's the carbon offsets we choose to engage with in terms of our air flights, or hybrid car or something like that.
Kai So it's a small government ideology.
Chris Totally. Yeah, very much a small government ideology, and that obviously serves the interests of for instance the fossil fuel industry because it pushes back against the idea that we actually need to regulate carbon emissions in fairly drastic sorts of ways which would obviously impact on their vested interests which encourage greater consumption of fossil.
Kai So I guess there's two things we want to highlight, right. First let's have a chat about what can we do and then what is the actual impact on business like both the fossil fuel industry and then you know, other parts of the economy which might actually benefit from making change.
Sandra So indeed what can we do? There was another article we came across this week that pretty much said that 20 years of activism and of protesting have led to no markable improvements in any sort of policy decision. What can we do?
Chris Yeah. Well that article has been quite controversial on social media, primarily from climate activists responding to it and saying this is sort of not useful conversation. And I take their point in the sense that was never going to be an equal fight. You know, just because we've had climate activism and climate marches, you're fighting against an opponent which is the most powerful industry in the world with huge financial and political resources. And it was always going to be tough to try and sway the global economy towards a more decarbonised route. So it's not surprising we haven't made a whole lot of progress because it's a David and Goliath fight. But having said that, what can we do? Well I think it's very much a political battle and we need the social mobilisation and the activism that things like the climate marches and Climate Action Week are trying to develop, which is to change the global economy in fairly fundamental ways.
Kai So David won in the end. So how is Goliath going to be taken down?
Chris Well there's a number of possible paths. One is a sort of social mobilisation argument, that through mass political organisation as we saw with, for instance, the suffragette movement in the 19th century or the civil rights movement in American 1960s, a large enough cohort of people come together to force political action which demands dramatic decarbonisation. Another path, another sort of stone in David's sling might be around technological innovation, and basically sort of renewable reinvention of the global energy system where we switch away from coal, oil, and gas for energy production and we promote renewable energy and battery storage at industrial scale to reinvent how we get and use energy.
Kai And that's certainly already happening, we've discussed previously on the podcast that, for example, electric buses in China which are being rolled out at a massive scale, already making a dent into the global demand for fossil fuels. And so there we see a large scale government driven campaign to make a technological switch. And so what I hear you say is that this has to happen in other places as well.
Chris Yeah and markets and enlightened billionaires aren't gonna be enough to do that, you do need policy drivers and industry policy driving that switch in how energy is produced and consumed. And the problem of course is politically that again the fossil fuel sector have been very canny politically in opting national governments towards this sort of 'fossil fuels forever' imaginary, that we can just keep going on with getting on using our energy as we always have and there'll be no bad consequences.
Kai And there's just been an article in The Sydney Morning Herald which is about our own backyard here in Australia, where not only is fossil fuel driving climate change and leading to drier conditions and the depletion of water in the Sydney basin, coal mining in the south of Sydney in one of the major catchment areas is now depleting swamps and areas that we actually need to harvest water. So we're digging up and still growing coal mining in the Sydney basin. And that actually leads to the depletion of water. And it's now Sydney Water, the company against the coal miners, in a stand-off to try and make sure that we're not actually doubly impacting the adverse effect of climate change here in Sydney.
Chris And you'll find lots of similar examples where the traditional sort of fossil fuel energy extraction sort of model has these manifold implications at a local, meso, and sort of global level. And in a book we wrote some years ago we talked about this concept of creative self-destruction, that in a sense we're throwing a lot of innovative capacity and thought at exactly the things we shouldn't be doing. So trying to extract oil from tar sands in Canada, or drilling for oil in the Arctic, or drilling for oil in even deeper water, or trying to develop more automated mega coal mines, and these are the things we shouldn't be doing and yet there's enormous amounts of entrepreneurial innovative sort of capacity being thrown at that, and a lot of government subsidies is being thrown at these sort of things, which are making the situation worse.
Sandra So can we look at some places around the world where maybe some positive action is being taken at the more systemic level, at a national level. There was an article in Reuters last week around Germany's climate protection measures, and even though the cost to such things is enormous, the article says it's going to cost about 40 billion dollars to implement this in Germany, there are plans for instance for Germany to double its share of power from renewable sources to 65 percent by 2030.
Chris Yeah indeed, I mean Germany is a great example because they've really seized the bull by the horns there in terms of trying to decarbonise their, their energy production. Obviously they closed down the nuclear plants post Fukushima, but the big problem has been a continued reliance on brown coal and lignite power, but also they've invested massively in renewables, wind and solar. And so there's parts of Germany, in the north of Germany in particular, where they've got community-owned wind farms where the actual sort of farm communities own the wind farms, and they actually gain revenue from that. So it's a commercial business proposal but it's collectively owned, and I think that's a sign of the future around community-owned renewable energy. Another country to look at would be Costa Rica which is I think 100 per cent renewable energy now, and they're gifted with significant geothermal energy, but also wind and solar. The other thing that's interesting about Costa Rica is they have no military, so they chose decades ago not to invest in a military industrial complex, but to throw those resources towards energy production and that's quite a positive example also.
Sandra What would happen if the US decided to invest its military budget towards renewable energies?
Chris Indeed. Well yeah, the US Department of Defence is I think one of the largest consumers of fossil fuels in the world. So that would be a significant change.
Sandra There would arguably also be a significant shift in political power around the world.
Kai Well that's I think beyond what we want to discuss today. So coming back to Germany I think, or the EU more broadly, I think a lot of what policy work has done there is create regulations that impact consumers in the first place, such as around building standards for housing development, around requirements for car emissions, but that are always targeted at building new industries, or creating new business opportunities such as in sustainable housing, and zero emission housing and things like that, where then companies become world leaders in new technology because the conditions are there that will then spur on entrepreneurial activity. So quite a positive government intervention which creates a new playing field, rather than a hands-off approach and leaving everything to the market.
Chris Yes indeed. And it highlights the need for government to engage in what we used to call industry policy which is a planned approach, trying to anticipate where they want to go in terms of developing their nation, developing their energy systems, and then putting in place incentives and policies and regulations which direct industries towards that future path. I mean we used to have industry policy in Australia around the transformation of the manufacturing industry in the 1980s when we removed tariff protection. But in the last 30 or so years we seem to have moved away from the whole idea of government taking a more leadership role in directing where the national economy needs to be, and in Australia currently we have no real energy policy. We have no real climate policy. We did have a carbon tax, we're the first nation in the world to have created a price on carbon and then removed it. And the evidence is fairly clear that that carbon price had a significant impact in reducing and decarbonising our energy supply and energy production. So in a sense we've gone backwards. And the German example where the government plays a pivotal role in directing economic activity is probably where we need to go on climate.
Kai And I think from a economic point of view there's a bit of a philosophical point to be made, where on the one hand you could say markets are just there and we have to leave them alone. But in a sense the realisation that markets need active creation and a certain form of governance for them to function or to get off the ground in the first place before we can leave them alone.
Sandra Of course even when there is market regulation or where there are for instance subsidies to help out solar and wind farms and clean technologies, there are still significant questions about where that money should be invested and how. We've seen for instance last week Bill Gates asking that solar and wind subsidies be redirected from technologies to basically other parts of the energy sector.
Chris Yeah, and that argument is somewhat duplicitous I'd argue, because the fossil fuel industry currently, which is a fairly antiquated industry when you think about it. I mean oil, coal, and gas were developed last century and the century before. They're still subject to massive subsidies from national governments all around the world, which significantly underpin their financial viability. And added to that, if we've look at the example of Bill Gates and Microsoft and the IT sector, a lot of that innovation came about from government-funded R&D and investments. So this sort of argument that we should somehow reduce subsidies for renewable energy, a nascent industry, a sort of a juvenile industry, is madness in a way. Because we need that subsidisation to ensure that we get that low carbon transition.
Kai So to be fair, Bill Gates is making the argument for example that we should not subsidise the generation of renewable energies because the price has come down and arguments that that could now be self-sufficient, but then directed into for example storage technology, so battery, those parts of the renewables economy that need propping up. But the MIT article that we saw, which makes this argument, also says that it's not enough that renewables can compete with coal fired power plants on a like by like price basis which we have but that we should get to the point where we can actually price coal out of the market so that we don't have to run out the coal-fired power plants for the next 30, 40 years.
Chris And the reality is that around the world there's still significant financial investment into new coal-fired power stations being built. So there are plants being proposed for Africa, and Asia, and Vietnam and other places, massive new coal-fired power stations. That's 30 or 40 years of infrastructure going in now that would be catastrophic for the world's climate.
Sandra So how should we think about the future of the fossil fuel industry? We’re at the Business School here.
Chris So it's an interesting one, because the share value of a big fossil fuel corporations Exxon, Shell, BP, Gazprom, whatever.
Kai Just to shame them.
Chris Well the top 10 companies by revenue are major fossil fuel corporations, a good proportion of them. And their value is predicated on the fact that they will exploit the fossil fuel reserves they currently have on the books, and we know that the carbon emissions from those fossil fuel reserves are five to six times greater than that remaining carbon budget that we have to avoid two degrees of average global warming.
Kai So the share market, in other words, has priced the end of the world.
Chris Yeah, indeed. They are assuming that fossil fuels forever will continue and will tank the planet. And that's what the value of those companies is based upon, which is completely surreal and bizarre when you actually think about it. It's a point that environmental activist Bill McKibben made in a viral article in Rolling Stone five or six years ago now. So, the future looks grim for us, and grim for the fossil fuel industry, but they nevertheless are doubling down on that assumption that we will continue to do what we've been doing, and they continue to find new fossil fuel resources to exploit, let alone the ones they currently have on the books. So my feeling is for the future of the fossil fuel industry, coal oil, and gas, some parts of the industry will be thrown under the bus and there's signs that coal is being thrown under the bus by gas and oil, because coal is the most carbon intensive and gas is seen as a substitute for coal, which has occurred in the US.
Kai And we've seen this in a article in Medium, which we'll put in the show notes which is titled "Plan A + B failed. What next for big oil? And Plan A basically being climate denial, Plan B being that oil and gas are throwing coal under the bus. But what then for big oil as an industry?
Chris And big oil's been trying to sort of sort this out for decades. So BP famously rebadged itself as Beyond Petroleum in 2000 under Sir John Browne, which was essentially seen as a form of greenwash, and then of course went back to business as usual with Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, and the Gulf of Mexico. So the oil companies periodically try to reinvent themselves as energy companies, with some investment in renewable energy, but then fall back in line with their sort of traditional oil model. The question will be whether it reaches such a point politically that they are sin industries in terms of their reputational risk and their regulatory risk, that they then have to seriously look at decarbonising and finding new energy solutions, and possibly that would occur through a merger and acquisition of existing renewable energy businesses.
Kai Well let me ask you, I mean, we do see some change in consumer markets, there is now a greater appetite for electric vehicles and they do make a dent now in the global demand for oil. And also when it comes to investments, right, there's more and more investment products, and lots of aggressive marketing for non-carbon investments. So banks are reluctant to fund coal mine project, at least openly, and so is there a material change underway?
Chris Yeah I think there is, and it's been happening for a while now, around the sort of the reputational risk that these companies are exposed to. And this of course was the reasoning behind the fossil fuel divestment movement which has been quite successful in getting major organisations, like the cities of San Francisco and Seattle, the Church of England, even the Rockefeller Foundation, to commit to divesting their fossil fuel stocks. And that's not really about trying to financially cripple ExxonMobil or Shell or BP, it's a political play to highlight that these industries are predicated on tanking the planet, and harming their reputation to then drive political change. And I think that's been quite powerful and successful, and hopefully more of that will occur that will force these companies to shift from their current strategy of just kicking the can down the road.
Sandra So we've seen indeed last week the University of California going all fossil free in their investments that they've claimed that there's not for the reasons that we think but it's more from a financial risk perspective, that they see fossil fuel assets as financial risks, and they've said that that's why they made their 13.4 Billion dollar endowment fossil free at the end of this month.
Chris Yeah I know it's a very powerful example because University of California is a huge organisation, and it's a very powerful sort of symbolic move that reinforces this idea that perhaps the sort of the political winds are changing. Closer to home we saw this announcement just last week, where this large new open-cut coal mine in the Bylong Valley has been knocked back, which was going to fuel coal to Korea. So we're starting to see the beginnings of political statements and decisions which are pushing back against the continued expansion of fossil fuel extraction.
Sandra And indeed it's also companies that are not in that industry making a play, last week for instance the CEO of Atlassian, Mike Cannon-Brookes, is pushing for action on climate change, and has asked his workers to take part in the Friday strike.
Chris Yeah, well you're starting to see sort of fractions of capital in a way that there's segments of the financial services industry, some of the banks and insurance companies which are pushing very hard for a more meaningful response to the climate crisis. Mark Carney at the Bank of England talking about the, sort of the fiduciary risk of climate, and the insurance sector factoring in the impacts of extreme weather. I saw Mike Cannon-Brookes speak at an event with Al Gore, where he talked about the potential for Australia to be a renewable energy superpower, and it's quite a convincing sort of argument that we could, with solar, with wind, with DC transmission, with the hydrogen economy, we could export energy to Asia, but we lack the political will to sort of confront that potential change.
Kai And you know to make the glass half empty or mostly empty argument here, when it comes to the Australian political system at the moment, the Adani coal mine was approved in Queensland which you know will for all intents and purposes destroy the Great Barrier Reef, even before climate change can come into effect, so there's a massive project looming which they haven't started digging, and probably the assumption is that it's the coal that isn't economical at the moment that prevents this, but they could start digging at any moment. And so there is a real problem. And the industry of course, has its own ideas about what to do, and one of their proposals is carbon capture.
Chris Yes, carbon capture and storage, CCS, which is what I'd term a sort of a zombie political technology in a way, because it keeps reviving itself. The coal industry and the Minerals Council and other groups have been proposing carbon capture and storage for over 10 years, probably closer to 15 years, as the solution. And their argument is essentially not to deny that human-induced climate change is happening, but they say it's happening, but we have in Australia this massive resource of coal which we have to exploit and use because it's very valuable, but we can sequester these emissions, we can capture the emissions from power plants, put them under pressure, liquefy them or whatever and then inject them down into the earth somewhere, so they can be sequestered and not have an impact on the atmosphere. The problem of course is that the technology isn't really there yet. There are, I think, only one or two actually functioning power plants with some form of CCS. And then the irony is, this is the creative self-destruction again, that a lot of the carbon that's captured is sold to the oil industry to help them extract more oil. So it's not necessarily a solution to the emissions that are produced from coal-fired power stations.
Kai So carbon capture is basically bullshit, right. But you're speaking of zombies. And since we've dug ourselves into a really depressing doomsday hole here, let's go all the way in and go to our second story.
Sandra Which is about the end times. It's titled "A brief guide to the end of the world", it comes from Medium, and it tries to figure out how will we go extinct?
Kai "Humanity faces existential peril as never before. But whether or not we go extinct is up to us", the article starts with.
Sandra So speaking of asteroids, super volcanoes, nuclear war, climate change, engineered viruses...
Kai Artificial intelligence.
Sandra [00:26:46] Robots are coming to kill us, or even aliens. Maybe before we got into the article, how do we think the world's gonna end. Chris?
Chris [00:26:54] Well the world isn't going to end. But human civilisation may very well end this century would be one scenario. And that could occur, I would suggest that climate is behind a fair few of those, some sort of nuclear conflagration could well result over conflicts over resources, over water in the subcontinent for instance. That's one scenario that I know the US Department of Defence are scenario planning for. So yes, some sort of nuclear conflagration based on the sort of the growing societal and economic tensions that climate change precipitates. And there's an argument in the Department of Defence in the US that climate change is a so-called 'threat multiplier', so parts of the world that are already tense, the Middle East or other parts of the world, those tensions will increase as climate impacts extreme weather events, food shortages, shortages of water, amplify the tensions.
Kai It's of course a definitional issue what we mean by the end of the world.
Kai Is it the world as we know it, is it like civilisation, orderly human existence, or is it the end of the human species? But there's other events that are also climate related that scientists are toying with that could very well wipe out large parts of the population, such as you know there might be viruses or bacteria hidden in permafrost that haven't been around for millions of years, and therefore we might not have immunity, that might be released through climate change or mutations that might benefit from global warming, that might very well be a real threat.
Chris Well on the disease front, the human health front, beyond the sort of the melting permafrost and these viruses and bacteria that are released from past ages, there's also the more immediate possibility that existing diseases will increase, the disease vectors are spreading as the world warms. So insect-borne diseases like dengue fever and malaria are spreading towards the poles.
Kai We're already seeing a dengue epidemic at the moment.
Chris Yeah I think they have dengue in Queensland or something, I read somewhere. Ah, tick-borne viruses as ticks are spreading with a warming world, so that these so-called positive impacts or positive feedbacks as they're termed in climate science, which are not positive in the sense of being good things, they're positive in the sense of like a feedback loop. So as the world warms for instance in North America the boreal forests, the pine beetles are able to maintain their existence over winter, whereas before they would freeze and die off. They then are able to eat the pine trees and the pine forests more readily, which die, become basically feed for forest fires, which then amplifies the climate impacts.
Kai And to add to that cheerful cascade of events, we have real problems with bee populations or pollinators from climate change, it might well be that a worldwide famine is fuelled by the fact that agriculture can't actually pollinate its crops.
Sandra [00:29:39] And we've spoken before about the insect apocalypse.
Kai [00:29:41] Yes, which very well is related to that story, that cheerful story.
Chris [00:29:45] So the whole sixth extinction sort of phenomenon that we're now living through, where we're seeing sort of species extinction at rates around 10000 times greater than they should be. And that has a whole range of ripple effects for food production, for a whole range of issues that relate to health. So we can see how climate in some senses has these myriad impacts that go beyond just the sort of the business case, and the energy debates we've been discussing.
Kai So climate change sounds like a pretty unpleasant slow death. Is there anything that might kill us faster?
Sandra My money's still on nuclear war. Climate or not climate related.
Kai How about technology and engineering. Anything there that we can envision getting us there a bit quicker?
Chris Well, you guys might be more of the experts on the technology and the AI and the killer robots.
Kai Well it's not going to be AI, even though Elon Musk thinks that's where the threat lies. You talk to any computer scientist, statistical algorithms are not necessarily the biggest threat to the planet. But I think the threat might linger in biology or genetics laboratories around the world.
Sandra Engineered viruses.
Kai Yeah, engineered viruses getting out of control, where you know, hey we successfully re-engineered this virus...
Kai We're all gonna die. On that vein I guess for the technology, one that could emerge which could be very real and very powerful would be geoengineering. So there are already proposals in play, both in the private sector and in some governments around, if the world can't get its shit together to decarbonise, that the emergency response lever would be geoengineering, and that might involve something like stratospheric sulphur injection where we would inject sulphur particles into the stratosphere to try and deflect solar radiation. The problem with that of course is... What could possibly go wrong?
Chris What could possibly, well yes, Frankenstein technology because you have to keep doing it to ensure that the world stays cooler. And the moment you stop, you'll get a massive rebound effect, a very fast and rapid at accelerated warming. There's also the unintended consequences of what will that do to rainfall patterns? And of course it's doing nothing about ocean acidification, because the oceans are still absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. And so sort of, climate change's evil twin brother, ocean acidification, isn't dealt with with geoengineering.
Kai Maybe proponents of that technology should come study Australia, where we have a long and proud history of messing with our natural systems by, you know, introducing the cane toad as a...
Chris Or the rabbit.
Kai Or the rabbit, as an effective measure to, you know, fix one problem and create three new ones.
Chris All of these things speak to the sort of the hubris of human ingenuity, that we can somehow bend nature to our will, which of course goes right back to the very origins of the climate crisis with the Industrial Revolution, which you know with the invention of the steam engine. The idea was that you know industrials wouldn't have to build their factories next to watercourses, or wait for the wind to blow from a certain direction. We were now free to sort of do what we wanted not realising that you know the consequences of this would come back and bite us. And now we live in this age of consequences, where the climate crisis is really getting out of control. All of those fossil fuel emissions which have delivered massive economic growth and benefits, come at a cost that we now have to pay.
Kai Well it seems so far we've been putting everything on credit, right. But what I hear you say is the line of credit is running out, and it will come back to bite us. And we can be flippant about this and this whole apocalypse story you know which also includes aliens or zombies is deliberately more light-hearted than the reality and the facts around climate change. And so the question then is, is humour potentially a way to have that conversation on a broader level because the moralising stance of you have to change your behaviour and you're all going to be doomed certainly switches off many people who don't want to hear about it.
Sandra This reminds me of an episode we did about a year ago, when we were talking about the fact that satire seems to sell science. This was an article that talked about using satire to communicate science and whilst it was shown that it did carry some risks. Humour and satire did seem to be an effective tool for communication. How do we do that with climate change?
Chris One person who has done this actually is US climate scientist Michael Mann. He wrote a book with Tom Toles using cartoons to discuss the climate crisis and highlight the absurdity of some of these issues. So for instance on the geoengineering, he uses a cartoon of Frankenstein's monster sort of thing, I think the subtext 'what could possibly go wrong?', which I think is what we were just talking about. And in terms of Trump, there's a cartoon there and Trump and energy policies. So humour and satire particularly can be quite powerful in highlighting the absurdity of some of the arguments that the fossil fuel industry, conservative politicians, put forward on climate change to spur political action. I think humour also can be a powerful emotion in terms of trying to cope with the enormity and the horror of what the climate crisis actually involves, sort of the so-called gallows humour sort of response I know is it's one response I use myself to some of the pretty distressing sort of realities of the climate crisis. So for your own personal well-being, but also as a form of political mobilisation, humour can be quite powerful in this space.
Kai And we've seen some articles recently that has actually identified a condition called 'climate depression'. And while we're not going to discuss it now, we'll put it in the shownotes.
Chris Yes, so the whole eco-anxiety thing is a big piece. There's a colleague of mine, Glenn Albrecht, who coined the term solar 'Stolasalgia', which is sort of combination of nostalgia, but linked to the emotions that people feel when they see the natural environment despoiled or destroyed, open-cut coal mines whatever it might be. This sort of negative emotional reaction to seeing something that you love lost. But I think also the positive emotions can be used in engaging with climate change around, obviously there's hope, ah, there's joy, there's love, but I think humour is part of that. In trying to sort of both make sense of what's going on but also try to bring people to your cause.
Kai Anyone who wants to experience that just take a tour to the beautiful Hunter Valley, enjoy the regional wine, drive down the highway, take a wrong turn off, and you're right into the Mad Max territory of open-cut coal mining. It's quite horrendous.
Chris Or, if you want to go that far you could go to Newcastle and visit Kooragang Island, which is the largest coal port in the world, and just see mountains of black coal being conveyed into large ships, which then head off to other parts of the world to feed energy systems with our great Australian coal.
Sandra So maybe we should join the French scientist who declared in February in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, that if humans are exhausting the planet's resources, it's actually the earth that needs to adapt, and not us. The author's issued the warning: should planet Earth stick with its hard-line ideological stance...we will seek a second planet".
Kai I got one: two planets meet in space says one to the other "man, you look like shit". "Yeah, I know, I caught homo sapiens". "Oh yeah, I had that. That'll pass".
Sandra And if you want to know a bit more about how that will pass, we invite you to the University of Sydney event around Choosing your own apocalypse: "From Armageddon to Zombie Land". You can come down to the Seymour Centre on the 30th of October to join a discussion led by Adam Spencer. Together with a geoscientist, an astrophysicist, a biologist, and an infectious disease expert who pitch their predictions of how the world as we know it will end.
Kai And I think Dr Karl is also there, Karl Kruszelnicki, who's one of the science spokespeople in the University. And this is normally where we have a fancy paper title for a study that someone could do, but we've looked at the typical review process in fields like org. studies, three to four years, and we've decided it might not be worth it.
Chris I think that's all we have time for today.
Sandra And if we're still around, we'll see you next week.
Kai Yeah, maybe.
Sandra Thanks for listening.
Kai Thanks for listening.
Outro This was The Future, This Week made possible by the Sydney Business Insights Team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week right here with us our sound editor Megan Wedge who makes us sound good, and keeps us honest. Our theme was composed and played live on a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, YouTube, Soundcloud or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online on Flipboard, Twitter or sbi.sydney.edu.au If you have any news that you want us to discuss, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
All Exterminate, exterminate, exterminate.