I’m beginning to think the actors from the Marvel Cinematic Universe are convinced they are the characters they play.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m very supportive of anyone emulating the superheroes we worship on screen. But with “Iron Man” actor Robert Downey Jr.’s announcement of a new Footprint Coalition to “clean up the planet using robots and nanotechnology” at Amazon’s Re:MARS conference last week, one has to wonder whether or not he fancies himself a genius technological entrepreneur.
Downey Jr.’s well-intentioned proposal is indicative of a larger problem with the way that wealthy people, especially tech moguls, conduct the climate change conversation.
Multi-millionaire and billionaire liberal philanthropists love to promote individual action or technological advancement as solutions to climate change. However, they rarely throw their public support behind meaningful decarbonization attempts à la U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) Green New Deal, or Gov. Jay Inslee’s (D-Wash.) Evergreen Economy Plan — radical plans to completely overhaul the domestic economy and energy consumption.
Instead, they lead the charge for the “magic technological solution” — an eleventh hour tech innovation that cleans up the planet, solves all our problems and conveniently allows our most privileged to continue their wildly irresponsible patterns of consumption — no introspection necessary.
And make no mistake — the wealthy countries and wealthy individuals of the world are absolutely to blame.
A 2015 Oxfam study found that half of the planet’s individual-based fossil fuel consumption is caused by the wealthiest 10% of the world’s population. The poorest 50% is responsible for just a tenth of the pollution. There’s also the small fact that 100 of the world’s corporations caused 71% of global carbon dioxide emissions since 1988.
We don’t know exactly what sort of technological solutions Downey Jr.’s foundation will seek to develop, but there’s a pretty good chance they’ll fall under the category of geoengineering.
Geoengineering, also called climate engineering, involves intentional and large-scale intervention in the world’s climate in order to mitigate warming. It’s a solution that’s gaining traction among stressed-out scientists and lazy liberals alike.
Geoengineering proposals are typically divided into two categories: solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal.
One of the most popularly proposed methods of solar geoengineering is the release of mass amounts of reflective sulfate particles into the atmosphere. Upon hearing this, your first thought is probably, “Wait, aren’t aerosol particulates bad for people who like to breathe?”
The answer is yes, absolutely!
If this solution — and subsequent public health risk — sounds familiar, it’s because its catastrophic implications are explored in-depth in the 2013 post-apocalyptic movie “Snowpiercer.”
It’s important to note that this method would, in fact, cool the planet: if we hadn’t been releasing tons and tons of miniscule particles into the atmosphere over the last few hundreds of years, the planet would be a lot warmer than it is right now.
These aerosols currently reflect about a quarter of the sun’s heat, so if we pretend that the climate change problem is exclusively about warming, it would seem like a good decision.
The problem is that this particular type of air pollution leads to increased risk of heart disease, lung cancer and asthma, and already leads to a 1.8 year reduction in global life expectancy. So maybe it wouldn't be such a good decision after all.
Supporters of geoengineering walk a very fine ethical line. The subtext is clear: the status quo of consumption is good, but pesky climate change needs to be dealt with efficiently.
But the effects of climate change are already being felt disproportionately by poor communities of color in urban areas, and we can’t pretend that solar geoengineering wouldn’t first and foremost benefit the wealthy.
Robert Downey Jr. and other Hollywood climate activists can up and move if their summer homes are hit by sea level rise or any exacerbated natural disasters. Enormous amounts of toxic cooling particulates won’t be dropped on their multimillion dollar mansions, that’s for sure.
Turning to technological solutions tends to shift the Overton window to one question: Should everybody die, or just the global poor — those who are the most dramatically affected by climate change despite their lack of responsibility?
Sure, Downey Jr. is trying his best, and I’m not faulting him for investing in efforts to clean up the world. My concern is that his suggested reliance on technology is a symptom of a larger problem, a proposed Band-Aid for a bullet wound of a global issue.
Meredith Shaheed is a Junior from Lawrence majoring in environmental studies, history and political science.