I’m sure I’m not alone in occasionally contemplating the similarities between the current pandemic and the bigger threat we face of climate change.

Much that has gone on over the last few years has sent me into into either spirals of despair for the future, horrified at political venality and lack of global cooperation, or hope following the successes of the pharmaceutical industry. But the analogy only goes so far – for on a very key point, there is a difference. There is no vaccine for climate change.

Of course, like many I have my moments of wishful thinking. Some technology will come along to save us. In spite of global failures to make the changes to reduce emissions levels so far, something like a deus ex machina will turn things around and mean we won’t have to toil at the gargantuan task of changing our transport, our heating, our buildings, the way we grow and produce food. We will be able to go back to the way things were. Less developed countries or communities that never had that “way things were” in the first place, will be able to have that too.

But of course there is no fix like that. There is no vaccine. Climate is a very different and more complex problem, as is the wider ecological crisis.


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There are, of course, concepts out there that do seem like a vaccine-like mega-fix: wild and risky ideas like cannon-firing sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere to cloud out the sun. Then there’s the standard techno-fix on which a lot of hopes rest, carbon capture and storage, which still fills the hole in many net zero plans, though there are many doubts that it can be developed at the scale necessary to do much more than tackle the hardest to decarbonise industries.

I am not against technologies as tools. A giant toolkit of techno fixes is clearly necessary in helping 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 that is so major as to allow us to keep burning fossil fuels, is likely to come at some other cost.

One fix, I’ve mulled over, wishfully, in recent times, has been that artificial intelligence can sort the problem out. The big machine brain will take all that complexity that’s associated of the biodiversity and climate crises and create solutions. This wishful feeling, I realised, as I listened to Stuart Russell’s recent Reith Lectures on artificial intelligence, is obviously rooted in a naive sense of where AI’s potential lies.

Russell’s fascinating lectures threw cold water on any hopes that AI might be that deus ex machina to sort the climate. In an answer to a question on the issue, Russell said, “Many people believe that AI will be the thing that solves the climate problem. I don’t believe this at all. I think the climate problem is up to us. It’s what economists call a coordination problem, and no-one wants to be the first to pay all the sacrifices when the other countries are busy pumping out the carbon dioxide.” That said, Russell does acknowledge that AI might help us improve some processes, the efficiency, for instance of recycling. And I’ve seen myself how AI is being widely being touted as a tool: used, for instance, together with satellite imagery in carbon stock estimation for informing land management decisions and calculating carbon offsets.

But wariness is still warranted. With all our tools we need to be alert to unintended negative impacts. If we’re going to use AI we need to consider the emissions produced by the technology itself, which are famously substantial. One paper by University of Massachusetts Amherst estimated that the carbon footprint of training a single large AI model creates emissions which would be 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 incorporate climate impact considerations into AI regulation.

“AI,” its authors wrote, “needs to be developed responsibly in all contexts. In the context of climate action, responsible AI means rejecting ‘techno-solutionism’ and not overblowing its potential. It means not underestimating its risks and drawbacks.”

Such issues hover around most techno-fixes. Most of us know there is no magic solution. The vaccine against the climate crisis is an overhaul of the way we relate to the environment, a revolution in the relationship between humans and the complex living and non-living world we are part of. It’s that we create a way of producing no longer driven by the chief goal of profit; we do the small things as well as the big things; we work hard on behalf or our children. We don’t wait for the silver bullet.