A month ago, Ezra Klein explained why he's a pessimist about climate change. His explanation is compelling — our ineffectual national and international institutions really do handicap our ability to deal with this problem. But Klein is too quick to dismiss our technical ingenuity and its capacity for unexpected greatness.
The Week's John Aziz has already written about the accelerating progress of solar energy. Advances in the efficiency and versatility of solar may slow down carbon emissions more than we realize. And if we're lucky, it may buy us enough time to develop the ultimate source of clean energy: nuclear fusion.
There is also good reason to believe that technologies will emerge to undo the harmful effects of climate change. Princeton scientists recently announced an artificial photosynthesis system that converts CO2 in the atmosphere into usable byproducts. Combined with rapid advances in clean energy, battery storage, and electric cars, we could avoid much of the damage from climate change.
Skeptics of these rosy technological predictions correctly point out some flaws. These projections often just extrapolate existing trends, without considering technical, economic, political, or regulatory obstacles. Yet these same skeptics often ignore where innovation comes from and how that's changing.
Most transformative technologies come from innovators, scientists, and entrepreneurs who are most likely WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) men. Edison, Bell, the Wright Brothers, Jobs, Gates, Musk, Brin, Bezos: all WEIRD men.
This is not because rich white men have special capabilities that others lack. It's because WEIRD men are a privileged elite who have sufficient amounts of health, education, networking, and capital.
Imagine they were instead born in Sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia, particularly as a woman. How different would the world be today? It's a fair assumption that many of these transformative technologies would not exist as they do now.
The dire poverty that afflicts much of the world's population is tragic for the obvious reasons: famine, violence, illiteracy, and shortened lives. That tragedy is compounded by the potential geniuses, inventors, and entrepreneurs who never had a chance to realize their inherent potential and push the human race forward.
But things are changing. The spread of capitalism and democracy has helped lift billions out of poverty through access to education, capital, health care, and reproductive rights. The internet, cheap computers, and smartphones have connected them with the rest of the world. All of which is leading to a collaboration of ideas that was impossible just decades ago. Now, if the next Steve Jobs is born in Southeast Asia, she or he will have more opportunity than ever before.
This unknown innovator may discover a breakthrough in computer architecture that helps us leap past our approaching quantum limits. By doing so, he or she will push our accelerating rates of innovation, which is central to all hopeful tech predictions. She or he may invent super-efficient solar cells or usable fusion energy. She or he may play a crucial role in the development and integration of 3D printing, robotics, and artificial intelligence. This may lead to new industrial production, capable of quickly scaling these technologies to deal with the scope of climate change.
This ever-expanding pool of talented, non-WEIRD people may be the ones who protect this planet. But economic and social discrimination of women and minorities, in developing and advanced societies alike, still exists and places harmful limits on our potential. Despite some remarkable anti-poverty achievements, 1.2 billion people still live on less than a $1.25 a day and 774 million people are illiterate, 64 percent of whom are women.
The faster we achieve universal equal opportunity, the faster we can reverse climate change and take on other challenges.