Magical Thinking about Climate Change

I was a bit surprised to find this article by Naomi Oreskes at Scientific American making an argument I have made around here from time to time:

At last year’s Glasgow COP26 meetings on the climate crisis, U.S. envoy and former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry stated that solutions to the climate crisis will involve “technologies that we don’t yet have” but are supposedly on the way. Kerry’s optimism comes directly from scientists. You can read about these beliefs in the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Integrated Assessment Models, created by researchers. These models present pathways to carbon reductions that may permit us to keep climate change below two degrees Celsius. They rely heavily on technologies that don’t yet exist, such as ways to store carbon in the ground safely, permanently and affordably.

Stop and think about this for a moment. Science—that is to say, Euro-American science—has long been held as our model for rationality. Scientists frequently accuse those who reject their findings of being irrational. Yet depending on technologies that do not yet exist is irrational, a kind of magical thinking. That is a developmental stage kids are expected to outgrow. Imagine if I said I planned to build a home with materials that had not yet been invented or build a civilization on Mars without first figuring out how to get even one human being there. You’d likely consider me irrational, perhaps delusional. Yet this kind of thinking pervades plans for future decarbonization.

I’m generally accused of not taking technological change into account but that’s not true. I don’t think that the pace or nature of technological change are predictable. I can only think of a few cases of major investments being made on the basis of technology that didn’t exist but might. Each one of those examples involved governments spending millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars. I honestly don’t believe any private company can be expected to do that.

7 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    I think some of this sounds like defense contracting, where R&D is built-in, and assumptions are made about how much developing the new technology and systems integration will cost. Of course, those initial estimates to win the contract are always low. See the F-35, which was supposed to be a “cheap” replacement for the F-16, Harrier, and F-18’s.

    So I think the model of developing new, reachable technology can work, but it doesn’t always work (ie. there are no guarantees), and it is always going to take significantly more time and money than initial estimates.

    And in many ways, defense contracting is a lot easier in practice than climate change efforts because defense contracts are entirely government-funded, work in an insular and controlled ecosystem, and there is a prime contractor to deal with.

    By contrast, climate change efforts have to consider dozens of agencies, utilities, the global market, etc.

  • Drew Link

    “I don’t think that the pace or nature of technological change are predictable.”

    As someone who’s job for years was to take laboratory level technologies and make them work in production environments that statement resonates. (And these were already developed lab technologies.) You can never predict what will work, or not, and what the timing or resources required will be. Its very frustrating, and risky.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    May be a logical extension of a certain thought process.
    “technologies that we don’t yet have” but are supposedly on the way,
    Will be available to combat problems that we don’t yet have, but are supposedly on the way.
    If only we can be convinced to surrender freedoms and lifestyles legislatively, that at present we do have.
    Not really magical thinking, but a sales pitch.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    There’s different levels of magical thinking on something that doesn’t exist.

    As an example from most magical to not so magical
    1) Things that violate the laws of physics. Like a perpetual motion machine (that would be a solution to all energy problems!)

    2) Relying on advances where we don’t have a theoretical understanding. An example is room temperature superconductors. It maybe possible, but as easy as alchemist trying to turn iron into gold 500 years ago

    3) Relying on advances where we have theoretical understanding, but don’t know how to apply it. That’s nuclear fusion; 20 years away for 40 years now.

    4) Relying on advances where we know how to apply it; but we don’t want to. This category is actually maddening because it is under our control. Here’s two examples, nuclear fission — which we understand, and applied in everyday life for 50 years — is close to going back to category 3 (this country has built one nuclear plant in 30 years, all the human capital on how to do so is practically retired and gone at this point). Or technology to send humans to the moon.

    The strange thing is we probably can do a lot better with the technologies on hand and applying them smartly.

    PS : I don’t get the phrase “Euro-American” science. There is only “science” when it comes to understanding repeatable phenomena and exploiting it. I am confident Chinese and Russian scientist use the same methodology as American scientists if they are going to have any success.

  • steve Link

    Pedictions are hard, especially about the future. But OTOH, there is little acknowledgment on this site about how much has changed, and so quickly. Little acceptance that things might change. You guys are stuck in 2010. In the last decade EV batteries for cars have dropped in price by about 90%. Amount of energy in a battery by weight has increased over 50%. There are similar cost drops and increased efficiency increases, maybe not quite as profound, across the entire renewable/battery sector. AND, there are a lot of promising leads. Do they all work out? Probably not. Do some? Given our history, probably.

    This is one fo those really weird things about America. Tell an American who runs small/medium sized businesses we cant possibly innovate and make production here in the US to compete with China and the old can-do American spirit pops up and they tell us we can do it. Suggest that we might possibly be able to further improve on the huge gains we have already made? No way.


  • Grey Shambler Link
  • Andy Link


    No doubt things are changing quickly. Whether the scale of change is big enough and whether the change is happening fast enough to affect climate change on realistic timescales is another matter.

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