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Global Visions > Blog > An environmental approach to climate change

An environmental approach to climate change

Max Tallberg

In our previous blog post we investigated the question of what physio-chemical as well as societal factors constitute the phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change. Further, we outlined the historical processes that have led up to the present moment where climate change poses a significant existential threat to all life on Earth. Finally, we presented shortly two different approaches of solving the problem of climate change. The terms we used were environmentalism and ecologism. This grouping is based on terminology used by such scholars as Andrew Dobson and Jorge Pinto. It is evident that the different approaches to solving a climate crisis are not reducible to such a rough dichotomy of this sort, but it illustrates significant ideological differences in the perception of the relationship between society and environment. In this text, we focus on the exploration of the environmental approach.

In the very centre of the environmental approach, one finds dualism of Cartesian heritage that separates society from nature. Taken to an extreme the view admits the belief that core of nature is in its absolute segregation from human society. In this anthropocentric viewpoint nature is perceived as categorical objective that has no actual agency as it lacks self-reflective rationality. This sort of mode of thinking easily leads to discerning nature primarily as reserves of material resources and raw materials. Thus, at the face of an environmental crisis such as climate change, nature is approached as an instrumental object of protection; climate change should not be slowed down nor stopped due to the intrinsic value of biodiversity but rather to protect – alongside with the living conditions of humans – the material production and energy consumption in the future as well.

The advocates of the environmental approach principally hold the opinion that the current models of economy, production, and consumption – including endless economic growth – can and should be maintained while pursuing positive economic environmental impacts. This optimism is primarily based on scientism on the one hand and on technological determinism on the other hand. Scientism is a view that is in the opinion that Western science – especially natural sciences – are the best or only way to render truth about the world and reality and to solve all problems belonging to these spheres of existence. Technological determinism is a theory or mechanistic model according to which the development of humans and societies is defined by technology and its advancements. In the milder form of this view, the purpose of technology is to create certain possibilities whereas in the more extreme variation technology is viewed as the sole factor behind societal change and an obligatory prerequisite for progress. In the environmental approach there is a firm trust in technological innovations as the solution for climate change: these are believed to fix and balance current, unsustainable effects on the environment. Next, we will explore a few technological solutions presented so far.

First solution would be heat storage. Here the given material would be heated when the cost of electricity is low. When, in turn, there would be scarcity of electricity, the heat stored in the material would be released and used in the production of electricity. Here one focal possibility is the cheap production of hydrogen: energy could be stored via the production of hydrogen and afterwards transferred to a fuel cell to produce electricity when needed. With this technology, energy could be stored for years to come and then convert again into energy in a short time. If the hydrogen were produced by using renewable energy sources, then this process would be decarbonized. Thus, renewable energy could be stored indirectly. Currently, there is the issue that the production of hydrogen without carbon dioxide emissions is expensive and involves high energy consumption in itself. The production process of hydrogen requires additionally various raw materials that are currently expensive. There is another issue with the production of hydrogen that should be addressed here: if methane, that is used in its production and transportation, is released into the atmosphere, it has a warming impact on the climate. This leads to the predicament that the net effect on climate change can be negative within a short period.

Geothermal energy is one method of producing low-emission energy. Here water is pumped deep inside the earth (up to two kilometres deep) where thermal energy in the Earth’s crust which originates from the formation of the planet and from the radioactive decay of materials warms water. As the water rises back to the surface, carbon-free electricity is being produced. Geothermal energy is a source of renewable energy since any projected heat extraction is small in comparison with the Earth’s heat content. Similarly, it is considered sustainable because it has the ability to sustain the integrity of ecosystems. Yet, the extraction should be carried out under supervision to avoid any possible local depletion. The biggest issue of geothermal energy lies in the fact that the energy produced by this method per square meter does not correspond to the current total energy demand. Second, all the drillings are not successful in producing energy. Additionally, geothermal energy is more efficient in the volcanic regions of the Earth limiting its global utilization.

Another interesting option to produce energy is nuclear fusion. Here energy is produced as two or more atomic nuclei are combined to form one or more different atomic nuclei and subatomic particles (neutrons or protons). This method is based on the same process that occurs within the Sun. During the process a vast amount of energy is produced that, in turn, can be converted into electricity. The major challenge is the development of efficient technology as the fusion in itself requires an enormous temperature. There is also a legitimate concern that the process would require an immense amount of energy – more energy, in fact, that the fusion itself would produce. Recently there has been one major breakthrough regarding this issue as there was a successful attempt to produce more energy through a fusion reaction than what was consumed during its launch. Further, nuclear fusion is being developed currently in ITER project that is carried out in France but features additional cooperation with China, India, other European countries, Japan, Russia, South-Korea, and the United States. The preliminary plans envision a tenfold production of heat energy in proportion to its consumption during launch. If successful, this project would hold a remarkable significance in the development of nuclear fusion. Despite recent innovations, a large-scale utilization of nuclear fusion is possible only during the latter half of the 21st century. Thus, it is evident that it is not a credible option while pursuing decarbonization by 2050. Instead, it should be viewed as a potential source of energy in more distant future.

In the current situation there are number of people speaking on the behalf of developing nuclear energy. Its greatest asset is the fact that it is almost completely emission-free. A major challenge here is uranium that is being used fuel in nuclear power plants since it is highly active nuclear waste. This waste is detrimental to nature and it should be isolated from the environment for 100 000 years. Nuclear power plant disasters have also rightfully affected negatively on people’s attitudes. Even though the number of these accidents is relatively low in relation to the number of power plants, catastrophes such as the Chernobyl disaster have been devastating to such an extent that threat of nuclear accidents cannot be overlooked. Risk related to nuclear power should be monitored through enhanced security measures and international supervision. In addition, small modular reactors are being developed currently that are smaller both in size and power compared with bigger reactors. Traditional reactors produce 1000–1500 megawatts per unit whereas small modular reactors produce 50–300 megawatts. The first small modular reactor was recently built in China. Its construction took five years, but the construction time has been estimated to drop to 2–3 years in the future. Reactors of this kind produce 100–200 less nuclear waste compared with large nuclear reactors and they are generally more secure. Further, they could be placed in the proximity of cities. Through small modular reactors, global emissions could be lessened with 15 gigatons per year between 2020 and 2050. For all the reasons mentioned above, small nuclear reactors should be taken into more large-scale use in the future. At least nuclear power could be a legitimate option while other options are being developed.

Taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere could be a means to compensate the damage humans have done to the climate so far. However, the current technology in this regard is highly expensive and the price tag of using it could be up to six percent of all world economy. Still, in the end the cost of shutting down whole sections of the economy would be even higher. Thus, it is evident that this technology requires significant developments before its effective utilization. If its expenses were lowered, it could become a credible possibility.  Nevertheless, there would be further problems as the question of storing the carbon dioxide would still require a solution. Truth be told, it would be significantly less expensive and sustainable to develop and utilize the production of zero-emission electricity. Yet, it might be inevitable that in the future the humankind faces the situation where it is forced to remove carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and thus the development of technology should be invested in already. The recovery of carbon dioxide is another option. Here carbon dioxide is being produced normally but it is being recovered before it has the time to reach the atmosphere. This would be easier than taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Yet, this technology is also rather expensive to utilize effectively.

Climate engineering is also possibility presented in the discussion about climate action. This would mean the lessening of the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth by one percent. One option here is to spread cooling particles to the upper regions of the atmosphere. Another alternative would be clearing clouds. This would be accomplished by spraying the clouds with salt that would allow the clouds to break up more light. One benefit with this option is the fact that it would not require an extensive amount of actions since it would be efficient to clear clouds with ten percent. This would be also relatively inexpensive and these actions would be easy to terminate if need be. Third option could be squirting artificial glass snow on top of the glaciers. This would result in the increase of the ice reflecting sunlight by 15–20 percent. The expenses here could be viewed as reasonable and in the areas where this method would be utilized there would be an expectancy of lowering the temperature by 1.5 degrees and increasing the thickness of the ice up to 50 centimetres.

On paper, the technological solutions presented here might seem attractive and yet there is one critical issue that must be taken into account regarding the looming climate catastrophe and especially its urgency. First, there is a major rift between the technological ideas and their feasibility as well as actual functionality. In each case of a technological innovation, the question must be asked whether this technology could be developed and utilized effectively in current political, economic and material reality. One of the decisive issues here is the funding of technological innovations: taking the very grass-root level as a starting point the members and projects within the scientific community require funding that allows the development of new technology. Whether a project or even an individual develops a promising technological innovation, this does not mean yet that the technology in question would be usable and utilizable: the first task of the scientific community is solely to develop an innovation but the realization, production, and introduction of it require funding of their own. Let us think of a carbon dioxide extractor for example: at the development stage an innovation of this kind demands planning and designing regarding how carbon dioxide could be de facto extracted from the atmosphere. Further, engineering is required to develop instruments and machinery that utilizes this technology in practice. Finally, the production of such apparatus demands funding once again regarding raw materials, parts, and manufacturing.

Second, the current political and economic realities pose a significant obstacle to the development of technology aimed at regulating climate change since it is hard to imagine such technology to generate instant surplus value. Naturally, it is evident that in the long run the successful development and introductions of such technology that could prevent the climate catastrophe would result in remarkable savings as the destructive effects of climate crisis would be avoided. In the end, it would be rational that governments would provide financial support to any research that is related to the development of climate technology. However, as long as representative democracy is the form of government in the richest countries, it is rather hard to imagine politicians and policy-makers having enough strength of will to invest noteworthy amounts of capital from the national budget into this sort of research while risking their success in the next elections. A warning to be heeded of the shortcomings of democracy at the face of ecological crises comes from the USA: any financial support that Barack Obama’s government invested in climate research was immediately abolished when Donald Trump was elected president. Additionally, there are lobbyist of fossil industry both in the American congress and the European Union that pursue their own interests and maintain their positions of power. In summary, current democratic systems are slow to answer a threat such as the climate crisis that demands both perseverance and resolution. In general, the government as a source of change is in a weakened state since supranational capital and its representatives have a significant influence on political decision-making due to neoliberal capitalism. Similarly, the public sector is quite unwilling to invest in climate technology since the financial success of these projects is hard to measure and demonstrate to financiers in an attractive fashion. For the environmental approach to succeed in the avoidance of climate crisis, unequalled international cooperation and research projects are needed that are further granted adequate funding. It should also be noted that the present situation does not call for only one innovation but numerous.

The third and biggest issue for the environmental approach, however, is the crippling dependency of current societies on fossil fuels. The unpleasant truth is that societies do not have an energy source in their view in the near future that would on the one hand be equivalent to fossil fuels both in their quality and amount and allow the maintenance of current societies without generating a global problem such as climate change on the other hand. The entire energy consumption of a country the size of China, for example, would require 4000 nuclear power plants running day and night. Building such infrastructure would be practically impossible both temporally and materially. The construction and use of renewable energy technology as well as technology aimed at mitigating climate change – like all human activity – increase the use of natural resources and energy. Thus, the development of technology does not the issue of overproduction and overconsumption. In the end, it is time itself that is against technological innovations: societies have woken up late to the threat of ecological crises and to respect planetary boundaries and climate tipping points substantial and decisive actions are required immediately – not in some distant future when technology might offer solutions to these problems. Human beings, politicians and societies cannot afford to do too little too late.  


Bastin, J.-F. et al. (2019) The global tree restoration potential. Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science). [Online] 365 (6448), 76–79.

Dixson-Decleve, Sandrine et al. Earth for All. A survival guide for Humanity. New Society Publishers 2022.

Dobson, A. (2007): Green political thought. London and New York: Routledge.

Fridleifsson, Ingvar B.; Bertani, Ruggero; Huenges, Ernst; Lund, John W.; Ragnarsson, Arni; Rybach, Ladislaus (2008-02-11), O. Hohmeyer and T. Trittin (ed.): The possible role and contribution of geothermal energy to the mitigation of climate change | IPCC Scoping Meeting on Renewable Energy Sources conference

Gates, Bill. Kuinka välttää ilmastokatastrofi. Nykyiset ratkaisut ja läpimurrot joita vielä tarvitsemme. WSOY 2021.

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