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There's no shortage of climate solutions — here's how to tell which ones are legitimate


There are lots of ideas floating around for how to reduce the emissions which contribute to climate change. They range from ambitious technology solutions, like nuclear fusion, to low-tech ones, like planting millions of trees. We wanted to get a sense of how legitimate these ideas are, so we turned to Julia Simon, NPR's climate solutions reporter. Julia, so nice to have you on the program.


PERALTA: All right. So in a nutshell, what's the best way to address climate change?

SIMON: Scientists will tell you the big climate solution is to burn less fossil fuels and transition to more renewable energy and storage - become more efficient.

PERALTA: OK, so totally logical. But then you hear about these exotic climate solutions, like the recent news about nuclear fusion. Is that a climate solution?

SIMON: Oh, nuclear fusion. Here's what Harvard historian of science Naomi Oreskes has to say about that.

NAOMI ORESKES: Oh, my God. I mean, just let me blow up there for a second, to use the fusion metaphor. I mean, people have been claiming that nuclear fusion was just around the corner since 1943.

SIMON: Oreskes says whenever you hear about a new, promising climate technology, ask yourself, is this technology actually available now? Is it affordable or scalable now?

ORESKES: Whenever you hear the word breakthrough, some red flags should start flying.

PERALTA: Killjoys. But what about when you buy an airplane ticket these days? Some airlines offer to take even more of your money to offset the carbon emissions from your flight. Is that money well spent?

SIMON: Often, it isn't. So an offset can be something like giving money to plant trees that will, in theory, soak up the carbon dioxide equivalent to your flight. But experts will tell you there are often issues verifying those offsets. What if those trees burn in a wildfire? If offsets don't work, that's adding more emissions.

PERALTA: So adding emissions, that's going backwards.

SIMON: It's not working. And you can see this with carbon capture, too. That's this new technology to vacuum carbon dioxide out of the air. Right now, if the process uses fossil fuels, it can add more emissions. A climate solution, by definition, should not add more emissions to our atmosphere.

PERALTA: So when we hear about these ideas, is there a yardstick that we can apply to figure out if it's legitimate or even promising?

SIMON: Yeah. Here's a tip from Melissa Aronczyk. She's a media professor at Rutgers University.

MELISSA ARONCZYK: When I hear the word solutions, immediately I think, who is coming up with this solution, and what do they say the problem is?

SIMON: If a company, for example, claims they're all about climate solutions but continues to invest in fossil fuels, Aronczyk says pay attention. That business may be trying to signal, we got this, and delay more meaningful action to cut climate pollution.

ARONCZYK: And what's the government's role in all of this?

SIMON: We often think of businesses working on solutions on their own, but government often plays a big role in funding and research support for new climate tech. And scientists say governments will have to play a big role in regulating emissions. So this all relates to this solution I keep hearing about. Here's June Sekera, visiting scholar at The New School in New York.

JUNE SEKERA: You know, it goes back to voting, who you vote into office. That's the bottom line.

SIMON: We can see this in Brazil, Eyder. Brazilians just voted in a new president, President Lula da Silva. He's pledged to address deforestation, a huge chunk of Brazil's emissions. So a big climate solution at your fingertips is to vote.

PERALTA: NPR's climate solutions reporter Julia Simon. Thank you, Julia.

SIMON: Thank you, Eyder. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.