Science

Spending $300 Billion Is Not Going to Solve Climate Change

It’s a politics problem.

Two women use shovels to work parched-looking land.
Anti-desertification efforts in China in 2018.
Wang Jiang/Reuters

A story out today in Bloomberg suggests we can solve climate change for $300 billion, which, as many astute readers have noticed, is a deal. As authors Adam Majendie and Pratik Parija point out, $300 billion is merely “the gross domestic product of Chile, or the world’s military spending every 60 days.” Seems pretty doable!

The plan comes from the United Nations and entails restoring degraded land back into productive soil that not only holds carbon, but also produces things that are useful to humans, like food. The Bloomberg piece focuses more on explaining the particulars of how it could be done than on fact-checking the likeliness that it will bury as much carbon as proposed. Restoring habitat and rehabilitating soil are generally good things to do regardless, though, and it seems at least possible that if we do enough of it, we really can bury as much carbon as they are suggesting.

But is it going to solve climate change? No, it’s merely going to buy us more time to solve climate change. Everyone, even the creators of the plan, agrees on this—one told Bloomberg that it will “stabilize the atmospheric changes” for “15-20 years.” The hope is that during that time, we humans will figure out how to restructure our societies in fundamental ways so that our existence doesn’t keep torching the planet.

The story and the plan are good reminders that technical questions like how to successfully restore soil are not the main thing stopping us from addressing climate change. That responsibility falls instead to the complete void of political will from the people in power to actually make this a priority. This is not to say that there are no technical questions remaining about how humanity could have a lighter footprint, particularly if we want to maintain our current lifestyles. But the main issues we are facing with climate change are political and power-based, not scientific or technological.

The soil plan isn’t bad. Maybe it’ll work because it will allow the current groundswell of anger enough time to get the right people in office to actually change things. Or maybe burying a bunch of carbon will successfully take the pressure off—but then will lessen the urgency that we’re finally feeling. Or maybe we will solve climate change simply because we will finally realize we don’t want to live through “horrifically grim” scenarios like the ones laid out in a new report from the U.S. Army, which Nafeez Ahmed summarized at Vice. I don’t know. But one thing is certain: It’s going cost a lot more than $300 billion.