Planet-saving technology: please handle responsibly

Like many with a Netflix subscription, I watched Don’t Look Up during the festive break.

Spoiler alert. Please stop reading if it’s on your 2022 watch list.

Much has been written about the film’s obvious climate crisis analogies: scientists being ignored; the media trivialising the acutely severe; social media spreading misinformation; politicians idling in the face of a global existential threat.

Another angle struck me more than any other.

As the world is on the verge of sending nukes into space to deflect the meteorite speeding towards earth, Mark Rylance’s character, Peter Isherwell, the founder and CEO of BASH, a global tech firm, convinces the President of the United States to halt the space-bound arsenal.

Instead, BASH is given time to build and deploy a technology which will land on the meteorite, break it into fragments and ultimately allow humanity to save itself and prosper from the wealth of raw materials concealed within the meteorite.

A public information campaign is devised, which attempts to convince humanity to back BASH’s brazen attempts to save the planet.

Climate campaigners have for years warned of the dangers of blind techno optimism. Believing a revolutionary scientific breakthrough will solve the climate crisis can lead to complacency and undermine efforts to change people’s behaviours and adopt more sustainable lives.

Conversely, in what is an increasingly desperate situation (carbon emissions in numerous developed economies significantly increased in 2021), the world needs public support for investment in the technology which has a clear role to play in driving down emissions more than ever.

However, there is a balance that needs fostering between promoting robust climate technology and dangerously fuelling a surge in climate techno optimism.

To deliver an environment where public sentiment nurtures support for climate technology throughout the 2020s will require numerous stakeholders to take a long term, responsible approach.

Firstly, venture capitalists and early-stage climate tech firms will need to communicate honestly and openly about the timescales, measurable impact and chances of success their projects carry. VC and PE funding of climate tech start-ups tripled to $87.5billion in the second half of 2020 and first half of 2021.

That capital carries future reputational risk for the planet. As companies grow and seek further funding in the future, they will be tempted to over-hype their work, collectively creating a false impression that the world is closer to big leaps forward in tackling the climate crisis through technology than in reality.

Secondly, the media needs to fight the temptation to cherry pick the stories that will drive clicks, without accurately representing how far down the development path a technology is to being usable and scalable. A recent case in point was how the news that scientists in China had created an ‘artificial sun’ – a nuclear fusion experiment creating temperatures five times hotter than the sun for a period of 17 minutes – was reported.

Whilst the prospect of creating an unlimited source of clean energy is undeniably exciting, a commitment to explain to readers how far we are from being able to harness such an approach should be uniform across the media.

The stakes are too high for hyperbole to triumph over objectivity.

The media should instead continue to give greater prominence to the scientific and technological activity which is more immediately within our grasp to tackle climate change, such as the efforts to rewild. Building greater awareness and support for such initiatives is one of the greatest contributions the media could make to public life across this decade.

Thirdly, social media firms have an opportunity to provide balance in nudging people daily to change their behaviours towards more sustainable outcomes, neutralising any negative behavioural impact of future waves of techno optimism.

Why couldn’t the major platforms take a collective decision to give the equivalent of one per cent of their advertising inventory to helpful content which support people to lead more sustainable lives? This would provide a useful insurance policy against citizen complacency. With regulatory pressure of the sector intensifying, it is the kind of initiative which may also help the social media giants drive reappraisal of their social utility.

Lastly, the communications industry needs to assume a key role. We must recognise that we are an industry predominantly staffed by arts graduates. Storytelling skills, sadly, tend to significantly outweigh our scientific rigour. Any temptation to tell a compelling moon shot story for the sake of driving headlines has to be doused with a heavy dose of responsibility.

No matter how amazing your clients’ prototype photosynthesising coffee cup or emissions-eating robo-shark may be, perhaps check yourself until it has been peer reviewed and is viable.

As Mark Rylance’s character realises his initial moon shot has failed to save the world, he boards a spacecraft and, alongside a select group of fellow humans, leaves to find a habitable planet somewhere else in the galaxy. You find yourself wanting to believe humanity is capable of such ingenuity.

Back on planet earth, let’s make sure we build appropriate reputations for the technological solutions which are attempting to tackle the climate crisis.