Realism About Technooptimism

Realism About Technooptimism

Technology will save us! No, it won't!

When climate policy debates concern specific sectors of the economy, potential technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, or energy strategies, the same basic question always arises: how much can we rely on "simple" technical formulations? , and preferably "cheap"? Can we deal with climate change by hoping that people will switch to low-carbon technologies, or will more fundamental changes be needed in the way we live and organize ourselves as a society?

These are not just philosophical or academic questions. In today's political culture, they have been one of the most divisive issues between the right and the left. Some trust the market and new technologies to solve all problems, while others insist that public policy should play a leading role. Yes, this cartoon is very raw. But recognizing that it is a large number of politicians, walkers, and their supporters who frame the problem can help us analyze and ultimately improve how new cleantech advances are received.

Consider last month's apparent scientific breakthrough in nuclear fusion. The long-standing debate over nuclear power is back in the spotlight. Techno-optimists have embraced the idea that we may have discovered a truly limitless source of clean energy. This would be in everyone's interest, regardless of political affiliation, and would seem to affirm that human ingenuity is the key to our salvation.

But even the most ardent techno-optimist cannot claim that only technology will save us. After all, the first thermonuclear fire occurred at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a US federal research facility where government scientists conduct taxpayer-funded experiments.

Yes, there are startups working on consolidation, hoping to launch their first pilot plants in the next decade. But they also need public money, either direct grants or Department of Energy loan guarantees authorized by the Inflation Reduction Act. It's the same situation in the UK or anywhere else, and it's not limited to fusion technology. Silicon Valley, a bastion of technoliberalism, relies more heavily on government funding and subsidies than many other industries.

None of this will come as a surprise to those who work in the energy sector, which includes some of the most highly regulated, taxed and subsidized industries in the world. Governments are constantly picking winners, and lobbying plays an important role in this process.

Watch the penultimate episode. Domains were catapulted into the epicenter of America's culture wars after a statement from the Federal Consumer Protection Agency raised concerns about their impact on indoor air quality. Induction is a new technology, gas is an old technology, and there is so much nuance and so much nonsense in this debate that it is not easy for the audience to understand.

In this case, many on the right, who normally trust technology to save us, are subscribing to old technology in the name of opposing "overzealous" government. But unlike in the past, they can no longer object to induction on the grounds that it costs more. You can now buy an induction cooktop from IKEA for $70.

The transition from gas to induction can be seen as largely symbolic in the fight against climate change. Yes, most homes in temperate and cold climates use much more gas for heating than for cooking. But this step goes beyond simple symbolism in houses, as it means the complete disconnection of the gas pipeline.

The fusion furnace debate shows why good technology goes beyond simplistic yes-no agreements. All in all, no one should argue that we need new technologies and new policies to reduce carbon emissions at the right rate and scale. Just ask the Texas Land and Freedom Coalition, an advocacy group representing traditionally conservative farmers and ranchers. The group advocates for policies to promote renewable energy projects throughout the state.

All technology optimists should do the same. If you believe that new technologies are the answer to climate change, you should want the government to use political influence to accelerate the deployment of these technologies. The problem, however, is that many who push for such policies do so in private, while those who oppose the new technologies are more vocal about them. Thus, the public discourse remains a caricature.

With a more detailed discussion, the audience will understand that not all technological solutions are created equal. Induction cooktops, heat pumps (a more efficient electric alternative to gas), retrofitting, and solar and wind power are ready for large-scale deployment—immediately. But other technologies - mainly nuclear fusion, as well as green liquid fuels for use where electrification is more efficient - are not. At best, it's a distraction or, worse, an excuse for further inaction. May continue to generate future benefits through increased research and development funding; But that shouldn't hurt cutting carbon emissions this decade.

As the joke goes, nuclear fusion is 30 years old. Now that it's done in a lab, those 30 years could be true. This means that this technology could become an integral part of low-carbon electricity generation in the second half of this century. But given this timeline, no one who understands climate science would suggest nuclear fusion as the only technology. Around seven million people already die every year from air pollution, which is mainly caused by burning fossil fuels, and our ability to control climate change depends on what we do before 2030 and then between 2030 and 2050.

No solution alone is sufficient. But accelerating the adoption of technologies that are already proven and scalable is an important goal, especially given the many hidden costs associated with fossil fuels, and will require new policies to steer investment in the right direction. Technology optimists should be their strongest advocates.

Why technical optimism is important

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