Against The Grain: 'Technology alone won't solve climate change'

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Dr Kate Rawles is a senior lecturer in outdoor studies at the University of Cumbria. She argues that it is dangerous to presume that the threat of climate change can be alleviated by advances in technology alone.

There's an ideological conflict going on at that is critical to addressing climate change but hasn't received much attention. On the one hand, you've got people who think that we can deal with the issue purely through advances in technology – Sir David King, the Government's former chief scientific adviser, takes this view – but on the other, you have people who think that although technology is important, technological changes alone are never going to provide an adequate response to our environmental and social-justice issues. We need more profound changes.

The WorldWildlifeFund's Living Planet Report said that if everybody on Earth was to enjoy the lifestyle of the average Western European, we would need three planets. We can't maintain the values and the lifestyle that we associate with a developed way of living. Technology is going to have a role to play in making machinery more efficient and reducing emissions, but even the most optimistic assessment will not allow six billion people to enjoy a Western lifestyle. And if we can't fix this problem through technology, we have to look critically at what we mean by being successful or developed.

We have a very materialistic understanding of what it means to have a high standard of living. We need to reshape the concept of quality of life to be less consumer-oriented. It's not all doom and gloom: we could have a higher quality of life even if it became less materialistic. There's a lot of evidence, from the New Economics Foundation, for example, to show that after a certain point, quality of life and happiness flatten out, even while consumption and individual incomes continue to rise. At a social level, there is too much emphasis on economics and GDP rather than on other indicators.

Academia has also been very timid in relation to climate change, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus that it's happening. Academics should be playing a much stronger role in tackling the question of how we should respond, and especially in encouraging critical thinking about the values that underpin Western industrialised societies. This is going to be the biggest challenge our species has faced. Despite the media hype about climate change, lots of people out there really don't know much about it and don't see it as something they can tackle in their own lives. Fostering understanding is crucial, because having the support of the electorate is the only way politicians will be able to make brave decisions about climate change and the wider environmental and social crises it causes.