UM professor: Could humans survive climate change by ‘messing with DNA?’

“I am cautious about the hubris, but I’m not totally negative about all these technologies,” UM professor Christopher Preston said. “If you ask me if I’m a technophobe or a technophile, I’d say a little of both. But anyone who thinks we’re going to address the climate crisis without technology is totally dreaming.” (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

People have used technology to label certain time periods – the Iron Age, the Bronze Age – but we need to ponder whether the future should be the Synthetic Age.

At a noontime lecture outside the Ecology Project International building, author and University of Montana professor Christopher Preston gave a brief overview of the kinds of technology that engineers are developing to try to counter the effects of climate change.

He’s recently assembled those technologies, starting at the atomic level and ending at the atmospheric, in his book “The Synthetic Age: Out designing evolution, resurrecting species and reengineering our world.”

“Climate change is not an uplifting story. However, in technology there is some optimism,” Preston said.

The climate is changing because humans are generating excess greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide and methane, by burning massive amounts of fossil fuels. The gases allow solar energy into the atmosphere but don’t let as much escape. So the atmosphere is on track to heat to levels it never has before.

At the atomic level, technologies don’t stop that directly. But nanotechnology can help people use fewer fossil fuels with materials that make batteries and engine combustion more efficient and make solar panels more flexible so they can be used in more places.

At the molecular level, scientists are trying to find more ways to modify DNA. The goal is to either change existing species so they can adapt to climate change more quickly or create new species, mainly bacteria, that consume more carbon dioxide.

Preston gave examples of possible adaptations for climate change such as improving heat tolerance in bull trout. Human impact could be reduced by making people shorter so they eat less, or making them meat-intolerant so less methane is produced and fewer resources are needed for livestock production.

“One synthetic biologist said, ‘There’s nothing greener than biology,’ so if we want to improve our prospects, maybe we should be messing with DNA, messing with organisms,” Preston said.

Taking things to an ecosystem level, as heat increases near the equator and spreads to the poles, biologists might try to speed up animal migration north by transplanting species. Or as more species die out, biologists could try to find new species to fill the role of their extinct predecessors.

At a noontime lecture outside the Ecology Project International building, author and University of Montana professor Christopher Preston gave a brief overview of the kinds of technology that engineers are developing to try to counter the effects of climate change. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Finally, two geoengineering possibilities exist at the atmospheric level that either reduce the solar energy coming in or the amount of greenhouse gas.

The first would require spraying sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight before it reaches the Earth. Since this would essentially add sulfuric acid to the air, it is highly controversial, although researchers point out that industry has already released 50 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the air.

The second option is not only less worrying, it’s a necessity, Preston said.

“It’s unfortunate that both (options) fall under this label of ‘geoengineering,’ because the one where you pull carbon out seems like a damn good idea. If instead of calling it geoengineering, we called it ‘pollution removal,’ you could start dealing with carbon as pollution,” Preston said.

But Preston didn’t have an easy time trying to convince his two-dozen listeners that they should share his optimism about technological solutions. When he asked their attitudes, two-thirds turned out to be technophobes.

Preston confided that he shares some of their fears, and predicted that the atmosphere and the genome were the two areas where man’s tinkering was likely to have unintended consequences.

“I am cautious about the hubris, but I’m not totally negative about all these technologies,” Preston said. “If you ask me if I’m a technophobe or a technophile, I’d say a little of both. But anyone who thinks we’re going to address the climate crisis without technology is totally dreaming.”

Technology caused the climate crisis, and some of the technology to fight it already exists, such as solar collectors. Entrepreneurs see the opportunity, so some, such as Tesla’s Elon Musk, are trying to be leaders in the developing market.

But some would try to cash in on products that aren’t really green or resist the trend altogether. And unfortunately, political leaders often aren’t the best people to be making such decisions alone.

“What is happening is so big and so significant that it would be crime if it was determined by commerce,” Preston said. “Really, the book is about laying the stuff out so that people can think about these technologies, know what is on the doorstep and have some say in whether or not we go down that path. These are public decisions and ones we all should be involved in.”