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.