Climate And Tech: How We Are Sending The Wrong Message

We always need hope — something to aspire to, some reason to act. We also need realism so we aspire intelligently, pursuing the best possible future. Stubborn realism is about aspiring effectively by understanding the challenges we face as completely as possible. Optimism of the collective will, even where ‘pessimism’ of the intellect appears well-motivated is behind every great achievement in human history, and so is maintaining this collective will despite clear thinking about what we’re up against.

This is all easy to agree with “in the abstract”, but in this post, I will explore what these principles have to say about a popular statement: “now we have the technology to address dangerous climate change.” I believe this language subtly passes over the challenges of combining realism and optimism. Rather than helping us to be optimistic about succeeding at the work of politics that is needed to use tech wisely, it helps us pass over this need — which, realistically, is difficult. This may not be what is consciously intended, but it is so.

I offered a similar exploration of the statement “1.5 °C is alive” in a recent post, making the case that it tends to undermine realism at the expense of optimism so subtly that we barely notice. Typically, by saying “1.5 °C. is alive” climate-informed people mean that technically, it is still possible to stop global overheating short of levels that will create climate chaos, this slogan tends to be heard as meaning “we’ve got a practical chance of meeting 1.5 °C with the political processes we have in place”.  Saying something is “technically possible” is usually a way of saying that in practice it is impossible, which is why “1.5 is alive” advocates usually do not say what sense of “possibility” they mean, unless forced to. The desire for a reprieve from spiralling climate decline is thus met by subtle conceptual confusion.

The reality is that taking the difficult technical routes to 1.5 would require vast political changes that show no signs of happening. If a person takes the time to read more deeply they become aware of this difference, but there’s a reason why climate communicators prefer three word slogans — many don’t read further. So, ironically, the “1.5 is alive” line puts 1.5 °C further and further out of practical reach; or, rather, it helps guarantee that we will miss it by wider and wider margins.

Something very similar is going on with: “now we have the technology to address climate change”

To put a fine point on it, I think this statement is heard to mean: Because of advances in technology, the political systems that we have are now able to avert an ecological catastrophe.

What I think speakers really want to get across to people is:

Because of helpful technological advances, the bold political changes we’ve long discussed but failed to make could still, after all our foolish delays, avert complete catastrophe.

But basically, even though we know the needed message is not getting through, few are actually explicitly making the latter point. Most are using language that makes it easy to hear the former, if that’s what people want. So “we’ve got this” is meekly allowed to be the popular impression.

There’s no doubt that advances in tech such as solar, electric cars, batteries, wind power, synthetic “green” combustion fuels, and energy efficiency can be enormously helpful to a transition. However, it is imperative to acknowledge that vastly more consumption (among billions of people in the global south) that is “low carbon” and “greener” but still not “no carbon” or “totally green” will push us past ecological limits that we are nearly at. A frictionless hi–tech world too plentiful to be worried about justice is not responsible to assume, as desirable as it is to assume.

In any case, there’s also no doubt that the potential of technology to reduce emissions has never been reached in the past. We’ve had the tech to get on much saner “emissions pathways” for decades. Yes, net zero would have been much harder a decade ago, but could we be at half of the emissions that we currently have right now? Yes, and if we had used the best tech available over the last few decades then the 1.5 goal would be alive in a practical sense, rather than a merely technical one. No new political binding agreements give us any reason to think that we will suddenly start meeting the potential of our technologies — either the new ones or those we’ve had for decades. What would give us hope for using the potential of our technology would be a widespread realisation that political intervention is necessary to achieve change fast enough.

The most hopeful thing I can say is that more people are ready to face the truth. So let’s face one truth — we live in a society whose civic religion includes faith in “the market”. This faith, built on the amazing innovations that we have seen from companies, sometimes turns into what Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz calls “market fundamentalism” — the myth that markets, alone, will always provide the solutions to our problems. Markets have been with us for millenia and there is zero political will and no practical plan for getting rid of markets but we are still living with a communist era phobia that hubristic left-wingers will try to replace entrepreneurs with government planners. The only way anything like that will happen is if free-market hubris makes such a mess of the earth that millions become willing to follow anti-market hubris. The reasonable middle-ground strategy of shifting or directing the market with sane policy seems unattainable given that the needed level of government intervention  would trample pro-market faith, and so it is tempting to hope that somebody will invent a technology that will make global warming go away.

That technology hasn’t emerged yet, though we’ve made great technical strides on many fronts. Solar power is indeed competitive with fossil fuels, hybrids are competitive with fossil burners. But, as noted already above, we’re talking, in many cases, about replacing old tech that would otherwise have years of life left. Obviously the fastest transition possible would require many to buy new electric cars despite having perfectly serviceable fossil-burners. Similarly, if power companies “throws out” an old fossil-burning plant that they already paid for and were planning on using for a decade or more and replace it with a new plant, then the companies must spend money in order to get the same benefit that the plant they threw out provided.

So adopting clean tech fast enough will require strong new policy interventions. These are what many in the business community fear, because these might normalise stronger interventions in the affairs of industry. Saying that such regulation is not needed because of the pace of progress in clean tech is a way of avoiding that discussion. Our society is conditioned to leap to such a conclusion, and any messaging which simplistically states that “we have the tech now” or “clean tech is cheaper” risks helping that jump. “Market fundamentalist” ideology has taken a stern beating since the 2008 crisis, a beating which has recently intensified as social media (also brought to us by market forces) is increasingly thought of as corrosive and addictive. Still, market fundamentalists are well organised and funded, and influential in the media. Voters and, especially, realistic businesspeople, can overpower this ideology, but only with strong majorities who favour climate action and recognise the need to organise.

If readers have doubts about whether politics-as-usual will achieve transition, it is useful to think about how many emissions we could have averted already. Hybrid technology has been around for decades and is about 3% of the market; it could be nearly 100% by now, which could have meant 20-25% reductions in transport emissions over the past decade, given accompanying political action. Switching of the vehicle mix towards fuel efficiency could have achieved further cuts. And then, we’d have a much more workable carbon budget.

Insulation and green building are also mature technologies, which could be used in nearly 100% of new builds but actually, 1.2% of new buildings get the highest energy efficiency rating. No new super-cheap super insulation is ready to come to market and make-up for this oversight.

Solar has been affordable since at least 2018, and there are no new reasons to expect it will become vastly more affordable in the near future than it is now (batteries prices are decreasing). Most of the cost of solar is now installation cost, which isn’t falling. If solar is not being installed fast enough now, market forces alone may not significantly change that (growth rates in world solar capacity are still high at 22% in 2021, but have fallen from over 50% a decade ago.) Markets helped by legislation on the other hand could.

The point isn’t to despair but to be realistic enough to know what we can hope for from market forces alone. And to highlight, bold and underline where market forces are not going to be enough to deploy needed tech. We need to publicly accept what most observers have known for decades but not said out loud for fear of being branded heretics — markets very often fail to provide for the social good if they are not helped by policy. Even the most “objective” technical observers never seem to make the point strongly enough that the market is not enough, and objectively, there is a lot of rhetoric that suggests that it is. I am optimistic that climate advocates will help enact ambitious policies and actually deploy our best tech, rather than trying to achieve a transition simply by talking up clean buildings and solar installations’ attractiveness.

Consumers will check the prices before they buy and current results say they aren’t being driven to adopt green tech fast enough simply because of price. Markets often fail to deliver the best results and it is time for sensible people to dispense with market fundamentalist myths and implore their employers, councils and MPs to do the same. Yes we have good new technology but it doesn’t install itself, and individuals will install it mainly when it is the best choice from a purely individual perspective, modified by changing cultural norms and ethical meanings. We have to adopt the policies that make the technology that benefits our grandchildren the obvious economic choice for consumers and businesses — now.

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