While Google leverages its phones and web services in the mundane service of advertising, executive chairman Eric Schmidt gives an almost mythological vision of the company's place in history. To Schmidt, Google's projects aren't merely new economic opportunities — they're solving the greatest problems mankind faces today, from acid attacks in Pakistan to medical care in Kenya. And in a short speech at Google's "How green is the internet?" summit, Schmidt offered a utopian take on technological progress and free speech, which he posits as the tools that will help us overcome the climate changes humans have wrought.
"You can lie about the effects of climate change, but eventually you'll be seen as a liar."
"The math says there's a couple billion people who want our carbon footprint," Schmidt said, laying out the problem. "And we can't afford that carbon footprint as a global thing." But the real issue, he said, is "the fact problem," a dearth of information that allows people to ignore climate change. "The media gets confused because they don't believe in facts, and public policy people get confused because they don't believe in innovation." But the real-world effects of climate change can't be ignored forever. "The thirst for information is ultimately the solution to the problems we talk about here," he said. "You can hold back knowledge, you cannot prevent it from spreading. You can lie about the effects of climate change, but eventually you'll be seen as a liar."
But while the speech was aimed at motivating experts who can develop carbon capture systems or other fixes for global warming, much of it touched on one of Schmidt's favorite themes: how Google is solving problems in the developing world. In America and other "high-bandwidth" countries, he said, "our futures are going to be fantastic." He touted futuristic personal assistants who will advise us on such picayune matters as when to wake up to catch a flight. "Do you think you're gonna use it? Yes. You know why? You want the 30 minutes of sleep."
"You're killing their kid and they only have one."
But he painted a dismal, often exoticized version of places like the Congo or Myanmar, places plagued by corrupt officials, a lack of running water, despotic governments, and terrible treatment of women — all of which, he said, can be mitigated by technology. He described a "colorfully robed head" of a Maasai village in Africa, who carried "his spear in one hand, his mobile phone in another, and his four wives around him. He shows off his mobile phone as a symbol of everything," Schmidt said.
The same access to information that can help people provide medical care or rebuild their lives after being disfigured by acid, he believes, can help them understand and protest climate change, especially as its effects become more obvious in day-to-day life. "In China, people are so upset about what's going on that they're risking the secret police and imprisonment to go to public demonstrations that are illegal in their country," he said. "Why? Because you're killing their kid and they only have one."
But an unasked question shadowed the talk: why, in nations that have none of the information gaps Schmidt describes, haven't we seen more dramatic results? Recent studies reveal only 12 percent of Americans believe climate change is not real, and 54 percent believe that it's caused mostly by human activity — while it's taken years, global warming is increasingly considered a real and pressing problem. But it's often still seen as distant or inevitable, and solutions have been in short supply; even the most incremental policy changes can generate outsized vitriol.
"You'll have an audience that you didn't have before, and they'll show you what the market looks like," says Schmidt. Popular support, though, doesn't necessarily equal meaningful change, and a market for innovation may not emerge until climate change's effects are well underway.