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Some climate activists grow discouraged when they discover that wind, solar, wave, and thermal energy technologies each carry their own damaging limitations. But that’s no reason to give up on renewables. The only way to completely eliminate the negative consequences of humans on the environment…is to eliminate humans. Short of that, the best we can do is reduce the damage. A transition away from fossil fuels is an essential step forward.

impact on climate

We can’t eliminate greed or stupidity, either, unfortunately, but we’d sure better find a way to lessen their destructive impact.

Harm reduction is a term that usually references the effort to help those addicted to drugs without expecting to solve the problem. For instance, while it’s better if a person stops shooting up altogether, if that’s not feasible simply by hoping or praying—or punishing—then the next best thing is to make shooting up less destructive. We provide clean needles and a “safe” place to inject, perhaps have someone nearby ready with naloxone. It’s not ideal, but if we can reduce some of the worst consequences of addiction, we have a better chance at reaching the most vulnerable and eventually finding better solutions.

Michael Moore’s film Planet of the Humans suggests technology isn’t an answer to the climate crisis. We need to have fewer kids, significantly decrease the global population, and live in harmony with nature. Is the solution then to bioengineer a more powerful disease than COVID-19? Even if all 7 billion of us gave up technology, we’d still create havoc with the environment. It would be a different type of damage, and maybe a lesser one in regard to carbon, but we’d still leave our mark, and it wouldn’t be pretty.

Remember how the fields at Woodstock looked in 1969?

All other things being equal, what’s better for a forest? Cutting down twenty-four trees or three hundred and sixty-two?

What’s a better outcome for a nuclear war? Three destroyed cities or seven hundred?

Would you rather your hometown suffer a 5.1 magnitude earthquake or an 8.4?

A simplified example of chaos theory is the butterfly flapping its wings in China and then through a series of unpredictable cause and effect repercussions, it rains in France. The truth is we’re going to have a negative impact on the environment and climate. We can, though, mitigate the damage. That mitigation will inevitably cause unexpected damage, and we’ll need to find a way to lessen that. Then that mitigation will need tweaking as well. But we don’t give up making improvements just because the next step forward isn’t 100% perfect.

If we lose our kindergartner to cancer, do we abandon the rest of our children? Do we give up vaccinating them against preventable diseases?

We grieve, we suffer, and we do our best to protect the other people we still love.

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Throwing up our hands in despair because renewables aren’t a perfect solution is not an acceptable response to the difficult realities of reversing climate damage.

We stop making the worst climate choices possible—oil, coal, fracking, even nuclear with its radioactive waste and potential for sabotage.

Perhaps we can’t stop the impact of all fossil fuel extraction already in process right now, but we can certainly refuse to add to the problem. When our frying pan catches fire while we’re cooking dinner, we don’t pour a bottle of vegetable oil on it to douse the flames. We don’t pour water, either. But there are options to limit the damage.

Our best options at the moment for reducing the catastrophic impact of our presence on the planet are wind, solar, wave, and thermal energy technologies. But even if we completely convert the entire globe to these renewables in the next ten years, that will hardly be the end of human progress. Technology didn’t stop with the invention of the wheel or the discovery of fire. It didn’t end with pulleys or levers or the steam engine. And it won’t stop when we transition away from fossil fuels.

This adaptation cannot possibly be perfect. Neither will the next one or the one after that.

None of that means it’s okay to construct a single new pipeline or drill even one more well.

We can’t eliminate greed or stupidity, either, unfortunately, but we’d sure better find a way to lessen their destructive impact.

Or perhaps we will choose a massive human death toll, after all. By default.

Harm reduction works for people and it works for climate as well. So let’s develop the renewables we can and start reducing harm before we overdose on the status quo.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend

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