Why Environmentalists Should Keep Quiet About Geoengineering

If it seems like there’s a technological fix, people lose interest in helping

Image Source/Corbis

There's an oft-unspoken perspective within the circle of environmentalists, climate change researchers and activists that the less is said about pie-in-the-sky technological fixes to environmental issues the better. A massive global issue like anthropogenic climate change, they say, is most easily and most affordably fixed through policy—rules that reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Any talk of unproven technology like geoengineering will only hurt that effort.

As the thinking goes, a focus on future technology would be, at best, a distraction. At worst, having people think that there's an easy way out will make them apathetic and unwilling to make changes in the short term.

Psychologists Marijn Meijers and Bastiaan Rutjens have lent some empirical support to that opinion. According to their research, “experiments show that portraying science as rapidly progressing—and thus enabling society to control problems related to the natural environment and human health in the not-too-distant future—is detrimental to environmentally friendly behaviour because such a frame affirms perceptions of an orderly (vs chaotic) world."

This in turn negatively affects the likelihood of engaging in environmentally friendly behaviour. Simultaneously, communication that questions (vs affirms) scientific progress leads to lower perceptions of order and consequential increases in environmentally friendly behaviour. These findings show that when the aim is to promote environmentally friendly attitudes and behaviour, it helps to not overstate scientific progress.

The more we as individuals believe that scientific progress is key to solving our environmental problems, the less we feel we need to do anything to help. The more chaotic and out-of-control the world seems, the more we're driven to right wrongs.

Describing the research, the British Psychological Society suggests a take-away for environmentalists and activists:

"If they're doing something, I don't have to" is a lazy rubric in most situations, but it's hard to think of a more misguided application than to the maintenance of our living environment. Science cannot fully mitigate the ongoing environmental crises, so - whether through the day-to-day habits of energy efficiency or one-off decisions to invest in a home away from a flood plain - we need to be prepared to get stuck in ourselves. To support this, science communicators should be wary of presenting science as an unstoppable force, and instead highlight the fascinating truth: it's a process of inquiry that makes no promises.

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