Realism About Technooptimism

Realism About Technooptimism

Technology will save us! No, no!

When climate policy debates affect specific economic sectors, potential technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, or energy strategy, the same fundamental question always arises: How long can we expect the best "easy" and "cheap" technical mix? Can climate change be tackled by hoping that people will switch to low-carbon technologies, or will it require more radical changes in the way we live and organize society?

These are not just philosophical or academic questions. Left and right are among the most controversial issues in today's political culture. One side looks to markets and new technologies to solve everything, while the other side insists that public policy should play a leading role. Yes, this cartoon is pretty cool. But recognizing that the issue is framed by multiple politicians, debaters, and their supporters helps us analyze and ultimately improve how new cleanup developments are perceived.

Consider last month's scientific breakthrough in nuclear fusion. The long debate over nuclear power is back on stage. Techno-optimists take the idea that we can find a truly limitless source of clean energy. It works for everyone, regardless of political affiliation, and human ingenuity seems to be the key to our survival.

But even the most cautious techno-optimist cannot claim that technology alone will save us. After all, the first fusion fire occurred at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a US federal research facility where government scientists conduct experiments paid for by taxpayers.

Yes, there are also startups joining in, hoping to launch their first pilot plants in the next decade. But direct aid and loan guarantees authorized by the Economic Department's anti-inflation law are also demanding government funds. In the UK or elsewhere the picture is no different, and it is not limited to fusion technology. Silicon Valley, the bedrock of technoliberalism, relies more on government funding and supportive policies than any other industry.

This is no surprise to those working in the energy sector, which is one of the most highly regulated, taxed and subsidized industries in the world. Governments always pick winners, and lobbying plays an important role in this process.

Now let's look at the last part. Kitchens are at the center of America's culture wars after the federal Consumer Protection Agency raised concerns about their impact on indoor air quality. Induction represents new technology, old gas, and the debate involves too much nonsense for the public to easily understand.

In this case, many on the right -- who traditionally believe that technology will save us -- are promoting old technologies in the name of opposing government "circumvention." But unlike in the past, you can't resist inspiration because it costs more. Now you can get the plate at IKEA for $70.

The transition from gas to induction can be seen as a metaphor for the fight against climate change. Yes, most homes in hot and cold climates use more gas for heating than for cooking. But this movement goes beyond the simple symbolism of houses, as it causes the gas pipe to be completely closed.

Fusion and Fire debates show why the right technology is needed to shout yes or no. In general, no one should argue that we need new technologies and new policies to reduce carbon emissions to the required level and extent. Just ask the Texas Land and Liberty Coalition, an advocacy group that typically represents conservative farmers and ranchers. The group supports policies to promote renewable energy projects throughout the state.

All tech hopefuls should do the same. If they believe that new technologies are the solution to climate change, countries will want to use policy tools to accelerate the deployment of these technologies. The problem is that many of those who push for these policies do so privately, while those who oppose the new technology are more transparent. As a result, public speaking is rewarded.

In a more detailed discussion, viewers will understand that not all technological solutions are equal. Induction cookers, heat pumps (a much more efficient electric alternative to gas), renewables, solar and wind power are poised for large-scale deployment. But other technologies, notably nuclear fusion, but also green liquid fuels for more electricity use, are also off the table. At best, they are a distraction or, at worst, an excuse for continued inactivity. They can still bring future benefits through research and development funding; But that doesn't rule out reducing carbon emissions this decade.

As the joke goes, nuclear fusion is 30 decades away. Now that it's been successful in the lab, those 30 years could become a reality. This means that in the second half of this century, the technology can be an important part of low carbon electricity. But no one who understands climate science would argue that nuclear fusion is the only technology based on this timeline. About seven million people die each year from air pollution from fossil fuels, and our ability to manage climate change depends on what we do in 2030 and beyond in 2030 and 2050.

A solution alone is not enough. But proven technologies and accelerated expansion are an important goal, especially given the many hidden costs associated with fossil fuels and the need for new policies to steer investment in the right direction. Techno-optimists should be their staunch defenders.

Juan Enriquez: Technological optimism versus technological pessimism

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