Editor’s note: Rabbi Jay Michaelson is a frequent guest on “CNN Tonight“ and a columnist for Rolling Stone. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
As someone who has worried and written about the climate crisis for 25 years, I have long viewed Al Gore as a hero. The former vice president, perhaps more than anyone else, first called our collective attention to the gravity of the threat.
Which is why it pains me to say that, in his recent comments about climate mitigation technologies, Gore is also quite wrong.
Not wrong about the climate crisis, of course. Nor, in his surprisingly angry TED Talk last month, wrong about the reasons our actions to mitigate the crisis have been so inadequate: because the fossil fuel industry has fought them tooth and nail and hoodwinked a good bit of the American public.
But Gore is dangerously wrong about carbon dioxide removal (CDR) strategies such as direct air capture, which, in the words of US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, refers to “giant vacuums that can suck decades of old carbon pollution straight out of the sky.” The 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law allocated $3.5 billion to develop direct air capture projects.
Gore said a lot of things about direct air capture in his TED Talk. He noted that it’s expensive (true) and that it’s not nearly effective enough to solve the climate crisis on its own (also true).
But his main objection was about what philosophers call “moral hazard”: that fighting climate change by using CDR, rather than by reducing carbon emissions gives the fossil fuel industry, and polluters in general, a free pass to keep polluting. Direct air capture, Gore said, “gives them a license to continue producing more and more oil and gas.”
Such a characterization is wrong – but interestingly wrong, because it shows how emotion and ideology can get in the way of ethical, effective action.
First, Gore is wrong to suggest that direct air capture, and CDR in general, is intended to take the place of emissions reductions, transitioning to renewable energy and so on. It is one part of what Granholm called “our climate crisis fighting arsenal.” It is one arrow in the quiver — both/and, not either/or.
I know Gore knows this, and is making a larger, impassioned point about the fossil fuel industry. But his statements are still profoundly unhelpful, because they reinforce a wrong view about the climate crisis: that the solutions to it will be about good guys and bad guys, virtues and sins.
According to the 3,675-page report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if we don’t limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, we’ll face massive disruptions in the planet’s food supply, more frequent and more severe natural disasters (2023 is just a sneak preview) and collapse of the ecological systems that keep the planet, and all of us, alive.
And those are just the direct, environmental impacts; those, in turn, will cause massive refugee crises, unimaginable health consequences and social instability, the likes of which we’ve never seen. Every social problem — from racism to authoritarianism, mental health to economic inequality — will get far worse.
We have a moral imperative to mitigate the climate crisis in any way we possibly can. Yes, that includes giant vacuum cleaners — or, as I playfully called them in 1998 (quoting “Bloom County”), giant laser space frisbees. Even if that means the bad guys sometimes win. Indeed, especially if bad guys sometimes win.
In an ideal world, we would cut emissions enough to mitigate the climate crisis. But in the real world, we’ve failed to do so for 30 years, and time has run out. We need every tool in the climate toolbox.
Martin Bunzl, a professor of philosophy emeritus at Rutgers University, has been writing about the ethics of climate policy for decades. On a recent 90-degree day in New Jersey, he told me that in the context of political choice, the “moral hazard” argument often has it backward.
“Studies have shown that it’s cheaper to clean litter off of highways than try to persuade people not to litter in the first place,” he said. It seems ridiculous, and it lets litterbugs off the hook, but cleanup is the better policy than anti-litter campaigns — or at the very least, a necessary accompaniment to them — if the goal is to have clean roads.
Likewise, investing in direct air capture can be read as granting carte blanche to fossil fuel companies. It doesn’t solve any of the other problems associated with overconsumption and pollution. And it is the opposite of the kind of virtue signaling in which liberals love to indulge with our reusable coffee mugs and electric cars. (I have both.)
But those virtue signals are often environmentally worthless — remember, it was “Big Oil” that popularized the term “carbon footprint” in the first place. And when it comes to leaving my daughter a world that is inhabitable and recognizable, I’ll choose what works.
No, CDR doesn’t punish the bad guys or lead us to a kinder, greener world. But it might help save the planet.