1. The very real fear of global devastation caused by climate change is so ingrained in the public consciousness that it has spawned its own genre, known as cli-fi.
Films such as The Day After Tomorrow and Snowpiercer have explored the idea of apocalypse brought about from global warming. Entire cities are swallowed by tidal waves and the world turns into a polar wasteland from misguided attempts to turn around rising temperatures.
If the cli-fi genre is to be believed, the outlook is bleak, but some scientists are more hopeful.
They say there are technological solutions available that will not just tackle climate change but make some serious advancements for mankind and improve the way we all live.
2. The worst case scenario for climate change, scientists say, is something called The Venus Syndrome, which even sounds like a sci-fi movie.
Before it was a stupidly hot and unliveable planet, Venus was similar to Earth, with recent data suggesting that it even had atmosphere and oceans, until greenhouse gases built up in its atmosphere and it lost all its water.
Also known as the runaway greenhouse effect, it’s a scientific scenario that would see rapid global warming and the oceans boil. The Earth would be quite literally cooked.
3. Barry Brook is a professor of environmental stability at the University of Tasmania, and he says there is some possibility that it could happen.
In a speech to the Australian Academy of Science on Tuesday night, he outlined some radical strategies to avoid the Venus Syndrome by transforming the way we create and use energy.
4. Safe and recyclable nuclear energy
Before we can do anything cool, we need a source of energy, but fossil fuels are on the way out. But with Fukushima still fresh in everyone’s minds, not many world leaders are keen to propose going nuclear.
Professor Brook says there is a new generation of nuclear reactor coming up that could change everything. Known as Generation IV reactors, these would be safe, sustainable and economical, and produce 150 times more energy than today’s reactors.
He says one of the best things about the new generation reactors is that they use existing nuclear waste, which needs to be kept for ten to 100 times longer than human civilisation has existed.
“First you’re taking the waste from today’s nuclear reactors and you’re using it, so you’re solving that problem. And you’re taking all the depleted uranium that has built up in stockpiles and using that for energy. You’re recycling it in these reactors to generate abundant zero carbon electricity,” Brooks explained in his speech.
And there is enough uranium already mined to run the whole world on these reactors for 500 years.
How long until this happens?
Seems like science fiction, but a commercial company has already developed a blueprint for the Gen IV reactors and they’re expected to be ready by 2030.
South Australian senator Sean Edwards is keen to get one of these new fandangled nuclear power plants, and wants the state to start storing nuclear waste. Premier Jay Weatherill has started a Royal Commission to look into the idea.
5. Technogardens and vertical farms
As our population grows, we are running out of room to grow crops. Currently over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is already being used.
Professor Brook says he can imagine a city that grows all its own food.
Instead of having all of our agricultural production on farms that take over large parts of the landscape, he says we should move “to an increasingly concentrated form of energy such as the vertical farm.”
Is this actually going to happen?
Yep, vertical gardens are no longer just as a cute way to grow succulents in a milk crate on your apartment balcony. French architectural firm Vincent Callebaut has designed a vertical farm on a huge scale for Shenzhen in China. Mixed-use eco towers would contain offices, retail and apartments as well as sustainable farming. Plus, they look SICK.
6. Genetically engineered food
If we’re going to grow all our food on the walls of our apartment buildings, scientists say we have to be realistic about things like access to sunshine and all that biz.
“A vertical farm needs artificial light, artificial climate control and lots of water. That’s where our desalination and industrial-scale heat come from,” Brook said.
“Beyond that it requires other techno-fixes such as genetic engineering to produce the types of crops, the GMOs that are most suitable for growing in these types of conditions.”
7. Vaporising garbage
Because we’re so fond of making stuff and then wrapping that stuff into little packages, waste management is a huge problem for civilisation.
“What if we could just lump all garbage together and recover all of the useful things in one go?” Brook offers.
Using torches hotter than the surface of the sun you can actually blast garbage back into its molecular form, and then use chemicals to reconstitute those garbage molecules into useful materials or gas, Brook says.
Excuse me are you serious why aren’t we doing this already?
The technology for this actually exists, but it has been too expensive in the past. An Australian company called SRL Plasma makes these crazy hot torches but it used to cost as much as $2,000 per tonne. Now two commercial trash vaporisation plants are being built in the U.S.
8. Blasting chemicals into the atmosphere
Geoengineering involves a bunch of new and hypothetical technologies that draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere or reflect solar rays to artificially cool the planet. It’s like the Earth has been trying to get into shape for a while but it hasn’t been going to the gym that much and now it’s considering surgery.
These techniques include injecting sulphates into the stratosphere to reflect the sun and cool the climate, planting huge forests to capture carbon and using space mirrors to reflect sunlight back into space and give the sun a taste of its own medicine. HOW’D YOU LIKE THAT, THE SUN?
Wow, that sounds both cool and terrible at the same time.
Of course these techno-fixes all come with costs and their own potential dangers, but government agencies are already looking into them. As Brook points out, we may be running out of time to do anything else.
“It’s politically challenging to propose and we are certainly nowhere near doing that. Not technically mind you, but socio-politically,” he said.
9. Painting the oceans white
Professor Brook says one of the most interesting proposals is to whiten the oceans to make them more reflective.
“The original proposal is an injection of microscopic bubbles run by a generator in the world’s shipping fleets to create a whitening effect that would increase the reflectivity of the planet,” he said.
Another scientist has suggested using polymers to have the same effect, although it wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye.
Would this actually do anything?
Increasing the whiteness of the oceans by one percent could take the global temperature down by one to two degrees and would cost $2 billion dollars, which is less than one power plant.
10. Concentrate our cities and leave the natural world alone
Professor Brook says the traditional view of environmentalists is to shrink the size of the human footprint and devolve our economy and society, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Instead of growing human populations moving out into the natural world like tropical rainforests, we should use new technologies to further concentrate our efforts on the land that we have already turned into cities, he says.
He says the world should be split into “human society using one part of the planet extremely productively and wild nature that is left alone.” Basically, it’s not about harmonising with nature, but staying the hell away and leaving it alone. It’s a movement known as ecomodernism.
“Now this sounds anathema to some people, it sounds like we’re moving into some type of society that’s completely divorced from nature,” Brook said.
“Is that a good thing? The answer is potentially yes.”