Gaga for Technology

Can the media ease their addiction to the new new thing?

CAMBRIDGE, Ma.—As journalists, we’re often caught in a cycle of “hype and disappointment,” said Bryan Walsh, national environment writer for Time magazine, during a panel last week at Harvard University called “Techno-optimism or Pessimism: ‘Fixing’ the Planet’s Problems.” We binge on hype about the latest magic-box technology until it fails to deliver on the hype, much of which we’ve fueled in a positive feedback cycle. At that point, we tend to attack the technology as a scam, or at least a blunder, and then move on to sniff out the next big thing. Our editors (or ourselves, if we are editors) often demand simple, definitive conclusions, not nuanced and complex explorations of a technical topic. This happened during the Internet boom, when hype catapulted startups to meteoric initial public offerings and gazillion-dollar market capitalizations on balance sheets made of sand.

It’s happening again in the clean-tech arena, in which many startups are promising to rescue the planet and tame climate change with promising but untested technologies and business plans. It’s no surprise. After all, the stakes—the livability of the planet as we’ve known it—have never been higher, so the hope and need for a solution are equal in scale.

At last week’s panel, Time’s Walsh joined journalist-author Jeff Goodell and Matthew Bunn, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard, to discuss how the media have covered, and should cover, potential climate-change solutions like geoengineering. Cristine Russell, a CJR contributing editor and senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, organized and moderated the event.

Walsh was spot-on in criticizing reporters’ tendency to oversimplify and sensationalize. “The media cycle burns hot and fast,” he said. “We look for stories that have clear points of progress and conflict, reversals and advances, all which build to some kind of climax or showdown.” That may work well with, say, the health care debate, but not with energy, where there are no clear turning points, no savior, he added.

When it comes to nuclear energy in particular, Harvard’s Bunn noted, the media play into “the cycle of unfounded fear and hype.” We can begin to break that cycle, he said, by giving context to stories—for example, pointing out institutional and economic barriers to carbon capture and storage technology, when utility companies claim that it will allow them to deliver cheap, carbon-free, coal-fired electricity.

During the panel, Goodell focused one of the latest, biggest questions among techno-optimists: Can we geoengineer the climate in order to avoid a detrimental level of global warming? It’s a “big, crazy idea,” he said, and his new book, How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), takes a nuanced and critical look at that question. In it, Goodell tries to get beyond the hype-and-disappointment media cycle by exploring various technological approaches and their potential consequences.

Until recently, most mainstream climate scientists dismissed the idea of geoengineering. They argued—and some surely still do—that the push to deliver a large-scale techno-solution diverts attention, and desperately needed funding, from more practical and less risky renewable energy technologies and energy conservation. Moreover, geoengineering skeptics say, the concept fuels the illusion that a quick fix exists to solve the climate problem. That, in turn, fuels the belief that individuals and nations can continue to pollute with impunity. But many of those mainstream scientists now entertain the possibility of geoengineering because they feel that, given the speed of industrial development around the world, we won’t be able to stabilize the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide at a sustainable level.

While working on his book, Goodell said that he, too—a father of three children and a child of Silicon Valley—found himself fearing that perhaps nothing short of a “crazy,” “audacious” techno-approach can solve the immense climate problem. Whatever the case, he said, this mega-scale technological push appears inevitable, and thus must be addressed. In his last book, Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), Goodell explored the daunting challenge of weaning ourselves off the fossil fuel that supplies about half of the nation’s electricity.

Among the geoengineering approaches Goodell explores in his book are spraying seawater into ocean clouds to alter their reflectivity, and spraying tiny sulfate particles into the air to offset the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere. He said the latter approach could be relatively inexpensive and quickly delivered. On the other hand, the sulfate particles could agglomerate into big chunks once released, proving useless.

Another often-ignored aspect of geoengineering is that, even if it worked, there could be losers as well as winners. If successful, the plan would lower the globe’s mean temperature, but global climate is a complex system. Rain patterns can shift as dramatically as temperature, for example. Will there be some mechanism to compensate farmers in the Sahel, where temperatures have been moderated, but whose crops are now desiccated stumps?

According to Goodell, the state of knowledge of the brave-new-world field of geoengineering is so low that it is dangerous to do anything beyond aggressively funding research in the area. But no matter how we proceed, we need to stop distancing ourselves from the consequences of our actions, he added. This applies to journalists covering the new new thing without context or criticism, or to individuals gorging on their laptop and iPhone while attacking the coal industry. As Time’s Walsh noted, one thing is for certain: “The energy path we’re on is not sustainable for a planet [soon to have] nine billion people.”

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Susan Moran is a freelance journalist currently on a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT. She's typically based in Colorado, where she writes about energy development, climate change, agriculture, environmental health, and sustainable business for The New York Times, The Economist, and other publications.