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Beyond Magical Thinking: It’s time to get real about climate change

Beyond Magical Thinking: It’s time to get real about climate change

Beyond Magical Thinking: Time to Get Real on Climate Change

The UN’s first climate conference took place in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, and in the intervening decades we have had a series of global meetings and countless assessments and studies. In 1995, annual climate change conferences were established in Berlin. They included well-publicized gatherings in Kyoto (1997), Cancun (2010) and Lima (2014).

In Paris, about 50,000 people flew to the French capital to attend yet another conference at which they were to strike, we were assured, a “landmark” — and also “ambitious” and “unprecedented” — agreement. Yet the Paris Agreement did not codify any specific reduction targets by the world’s largest emitters. Even if all non-binding voluntary pledges were kept (something that is highly unlikely), the Paris agreement would still lead to a 50 percent increase in emissions by 2050.

Some landmark.

What have we done to stop or reverse global warming in the 30 years since Rio?

The data are clear: Between 1989-1999, global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emission increased by about 67 percent. Affluent countries like the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, and those in the European Union — whose per capita energy use was very high three decades ago — did reduce their emissions, but only by about 4 percent. Indian greenhouse gas emissions increased by 4.3 times and Chinese emissions by 4.8 times. The summer of 2020 saw atmospheric CO2 levels rise to over 420 ppm. This is more than half a percent increase from the late 18Th-century level.

Unfortunately, we have largely ignored the need to take steps to limit the long-term effects of climate change.

It is clear that decarbonization will be possible soon and effectively. This goes against all previous evidence.

The problem is that rather than take a clear-eyed look at the enormous challenges of phasing out the fossil fuels that are the basis of modern industrial economies, we have ricocheted between catastrophism on one hand and the magical thinking of “techno-optimism” on the other.

In recent decades, we have increased our dependence upon the combustion of fossil fuels. This makes it hard to break this dependence. It is not clear how quickly we can change this. Add to this all other environmental worries, and you must conclude that the key existential question — can humanity realize its aspirations within the safe boundaries of our biosphere? — has no easy answers. It is important to understand the facts. Only then can we effectively tackle the problem.

We have, regrettably, largely ignored the need to take steps that could have reduced the long-term effects of climate change. These actions should have been taken even if there are no global warming concerns. They provide long-term savings and more comfort. We have also deliberately promoted the diffusion and promotion of new products and energy converters that have increased fossil fuel consumption and intensified CO2 emission.


Our World In Data

These omissions and commissions include the indefensibly poor building codes in cold climate countries. This leads to a huge waste of energy and the widespread adoption and use of SUVs. In the 1980s, SUV ownership began to increase in the United States and spread worldwide. In 2020, the average SUV produced about 220 g/year. 25 percentMore CO2 than a regular car. Multiply that number by the 250,000,000 SUVs on the roads worldwide in 2020 and you will see how global acceptance of these machines has negated any decarbonization gains due to the slowly expanding ownership (just 10,000,000 worldwide in 2020).

In the 2010s SUVs became the norm. Second-highest causeThere is a growing CO2 emission, second only to electricity generation. If they continue to enjoy a broad public embrace, they could offset any carbon savings from the more 100 million electric cars that may be on the road by 2040.

The list of what we have not — but could have — done is long. We must be realistic about the primacy and challenges of fossil fuels in order to move forward.


The main reason for modern civilization’s progress is its increasing dependence upon fossil fuels. The average Earthling now has 700 times more energy available than their ancestors at the start of the 19th century. An abundance of this energy underlies and explains the gains — from better eating to mass-scale travel; from mechanization of production and transport to instant personal electronic communication — that have become the norms in affluent countries.

We owe those who chart their preferred routes to a zero-carbon future realistic explanations and not only assumptions.

For those who ignore the energetic and material imperatives of our world, those who prefer mantras of green solutions to understanding how we have come to this point, the prescription is easy: just decarbonize — switch from burning fossil carbon to converting inexhaustible flows of renewable energies. We are a fossil-fueled society whose technological and scientific advancements, quality of life and prosperity depend on the combustion of large quantities of fossil carbon. We cannot just ignore this critical determinant of how our fortunes will change in a few decades or years.

The global economy can be completely decarbonized by 2050 if it is not retreated from the global economy or undergoes rapid technological changes that are almost miraculous. To give just a single key comparison, in 2020 the average annual per capita energy supply of about 40 percent of the world’s population (3.1 billion people, which includes nearly all people in sub- Saharan Africa) was no higher than the rate achieved in both Germany and France in 1860. In order to approach the threshold of a dignified standard of living, those 3.1 billion people will need at least to double — but preferably triple — their per-capita energy use, and in doing so multiply their electricity supply, boost their food production, and build essential infrastructures. These demands will undoubtedly lead to further degradation of the biosphere.

What can we do for the next decades? Recognizing fundamental realities is the first step. We used to think that a 2-degree C (3.6 F), increase in global average temperature was a safe limit. However, in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC) reduced that limit to 1. 5 C.

Air conditioners in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Air conditioners in Jeddah and Saudi Arabia
Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/ Corbis via Getty Images

The latest analysis of combined heat effects has shown that we are indeed. already committedGlobal warming of 2.3 C. It seems very likely that any chance of warming to 1.5 degrees is gone. Despite this, many institutions, governments, and organizations still believe that it is possible to keep it at this level.

The IPCC report about 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming proposes a scenario where emissions of carbon dioxide would be halved or eliminated by 2030. Computers make it simple to create scenarios of carbon elimination. However, those who chart their preferred paths towards a zero-carbon future owe realistic explanations. They don’t have to make arbitrary or highly unlikely assumptions that are disconnected from technical and economic realities. They also need to consider the embedded nature, large scale, and complexity of our energy systems and materials.

One rosy scenarioThis projection, which was largely prepared by researchers from the European Union and is unaffected by real-world considerations assumes that the average global per capita energy consumption in 2050 will be 52 % lower than in 2020. This drop would allow the global temperature rise to be kept below 1.5.C. It would be a remarkable feat to cut per capita energy consumption by half in just three decades, considering that global per capita energy use has increased by 50% over the past 30 years. roseBy 20 percent

What other options are there for African nations that are dependent on fossil fuels to provide 90 percent of their energy needs?

This unrealistic scenario allows for a factor of two increase in all modes of mobility over the next three decades in what they refer to as the Global South and a factor of three increase in ownership of consumer goods. However, China’s past generation has seen growth on a completely different scale. In 1999, the country had only 0.34 cars per 100 urban households; in 2019 the number surpassed 40 — a more than hundredfold relative increase in only two decades. In 1990, one out of every 300 urban households in China had an air conditioning window unit; by 2018 there were 142.2 units per 100 households — a more than 400-fold rise in less than three decades.

Princeton University energy researchers have created a second scenario which outlines a goal of total decarbonization by 2050. ChartedThe U.S. needs to make the necessary shifts. The Princeton scenario builders recognize that it will be impossible to eliminate all fossil fuel consumption and that the only way to achieve net- zero emissions is to resort to what they label the “fourth pillar” of their overall strategy — to mass-scale carbon capture and storage of emitted CO2. According to their calculations, the annual removal of gas would require a reduction of between 0.9 and 1.7 million tons. That would necessitate the creation of an entirely new gas capture-transportation and storage industry that every year would have to handle 1.3 to 2.4 times the volume of current U.S. crude oil production, an industry that took more than 160 years and trillions of dollars to build.


Our World In Data

Who can resist solutions that are cheap and almost instantly effective and that will create countless high-paying jobs as well as a carefree future for the coming generations? Let us all just sing from these green hymnals, follow all-renewable prescriptions, and a new global nirvana will arrive in just a decade — or, if things get a bit delayed, by 2035.

Unfortunately, these magical prescriptions do not explain how the four main pillars that make up modern civilization (cement and steel) can be produced entirely with renewable electricity. They do not explain how flying and shipping could be carbon-free.

What are the miraculous options available to African countries that rely on fossil fuels for 90 percent of their primary energy? How can they reduce their dependence to 20 per cent in a decade? What about India and China (both countries are involved)? still ExpandThey suddenly became completely coal-free from both coal-fired generation and coal extraction.

It is absurd to debate the details of what are essentially science fiction’s academic equivalents. They begin with arbitrarily defined goals (zero by 2030 or 2050), and then work backwards to add assumed actions to meet those achievements. Actual socioeconomic needs and technical imperatives are of little or no concern.

We are more exposed to the opposing tendencies to embrace techno-optimism and catastrophism.

Reality is thus pushed in from both ends. It is impossible to eliminate all these uses in a matter of decades because of the cost, scale, and technical inertia that carbon-dependent activities impose on our society. It is impossible to change the course of complex systems just by deciding that the global consumption curve will suddenly reverse the centuries-long upward trend and plunge into a steady and rapid decline.


We are increasingly exposed both to the opposing propensities of techno-optimism and catastrophism. These are those who believe that there are only a few years before the end of human civilization. I don’t see the point in either of these positions. I do not see any already predetermined outcomes, but rather a complicated trajectory contingent on our — far from foreclosed— choices.

Catastrophists have always had a hard time imagining that human ingenuity can meet future food, energy, and material needs — but during the past three generations we have done so despite a tripling of the global population since 1950. Techno-optimists who promise miraculous, endless solutions must also be aware of their poor record. One of the most well-known failures was the belief that nuclear fission is the answer to all our energy problems.

Journalists and activists have written about the latest round of intensified catastrophism. They are issuing final warnings that warns of climate apocalypse and states that areas most suitable for human habitation will shrink, large parts of the Earth will soon become uninhabitable, climate migration will reshape America as well as the world, and that the average global income will decrease substantially. According to some prophecies, we may only have a decade to prevent a global catastrophe.

New cars outside the Brilliance factory in Shenyang, China.

New cars outside the Brilliance plant in Shenyang (China).
STR / AFP via Getty Images

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I am convinced that we could do without this continuing flood of never-less-than-worrisome and too-often-quite-frightening predictions. How helpful would it be to be told daily that the world will end in 2050, 2030, or even 2050? These claims are so true, why should global warming even be a concern?

On the other, why do scientists keep on charting such arbitrarily bending curves that lead almost instant decarbonization? Others are predicting the arrival of technical super-fixes to support high standards for living for all people. It is possible to build such models without any limitations, leaving prognosticators with the possibility of cold fusion or thermonuclear energy at 100 percent affordable by 2050. These assumptions are limitless by imagination: they can be plausible or patently delusional.

These predictable and repetitive prophecies, however well-meaning and passionately presented, do not offer any practical advice on how to deploy the best technical solutions, the most effective ways to legally binding global cooperation, or how to overcome the difficult task of convincing people that significant expenditures are necessary, whose benefits will not be visible for many decades.


It is clear that we can make a difference. But, not by trying to achieve unrealistic and arbitrary goals. History is not a computerized academic exercise that shows major achievements falling on years ending in zero or five. It is full of discontinuities and reversals as well as unpredictable departures.

We do not know how much we will succeed in 2050, and 2100 is far beyond our comprehension.

We can quickly replace coal-fired electricity by natural gas. Natural gas is much more efficient than coal, and it can be transported without methane leakage. We can get rid of SUVs and speed up mass-scale deployments of electric cars. We still have large inefficiencies in the construction, household, commercial, and energy use that can be reduced or eliminated.

Because installation costs per unit can be lower than those for fossil-fueled alternatives, decarbonization of electricity generation may be the most effective way to make progress. Some countries have already made significant improvements to their generation.

Major reductions in carbon emissions — resulting from the combination of continued efficiency gains, better system designs, and moderated consumption — are possible, and a determined pursuit of these goals would limit the eventual rate of global warming. However, we don’t know if we will be able to achieve this by 2050. And thinking about 2100 is beyond our reach. For example, was there a single climate scientist who predicted that the most important anthropogenic cause of global warming in the last 30 years was the economic rise China.

What remains in doubt is our collective — in this case global — resolve to deal effectively with at least some critical challenges. Affluent nations could significantly reduce their average per capita energy consumption, while still maintaining a comfortable quality life. A widespread diffusion of simple technical solutions, from mandated triple windows to more durable vehicles, could have significant cumulative effects.

Wind turbines on land that was formerly an open-pit coal mine in Brandenburg, Germany.

Wind turbines built on land which was once an open-pit mine of coal in Brandenburg, Germany.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

It is clear that any effective steps will not be magical, gradual, or inexpensive. We have been transforming the environment on increasing scales and with rising intensity for millennia, and we have derived many benefits from these changes — but, inevitably, the biosphere has suffered. There are many ways to reduce these impacts, but there has not been the will to do so at the required scales. If we begin to act on a global level in an effective manner, we will have to pay a heavy economic and social cost. Will we act with foresight or when it is necessary?

We are always open for new challenges, new solutions, or new achievements. We are a very inquisitive species with a remarkable long-term record of adaptation and with even more remarkable recent accomplishments in making the lives of most of the world’s population healthier, richer, safer, and longer. Despite our efforts to change some of these fundamental limitations, we still have many to overcome.

In a society where nearly 8 billion people rely on essential commodities, any deviation from the established practices can also be a problem due to the limitations of scale. Even though the supply of new renewables (wind, solar, new biofuels) rose impressively — about Fiftyfold during the first 20 years of the 21st century — the world’s dependence on fossil carbon declined only marginally, from 87 percent to 85 percent of the total supply.

To achieve the desired outcome of reducing, if possible eliminating, greenhouse gas emissions, effective commitments will need to be costly. Even drastic reductions that are more than what could realistically be expected will not yield any tangible benefits for many decades. This raises the extraordinarily difficult problem of intergenerational justice — that is, our never- failing propensity to discount the future.

I am neither pessimist or optimist. I am a scientist trying explain how the world works.

We value it now more than later and we price that accordingly. The average global life expectancy of 72 years in 2020 (about 72 in 2020) will remain the same. However, the generation born close to the middle of 21stCentury would be the first century to benefit from climate-change mitigation strategies as a cumulative economic benefit. Are the young citizens in wealthy countries willing to sacrifice their immediate gains for these long-term benefits? Is it possible to continue this trend for over 50 years?

In 1945, nobody could have imagined a world with 5 billion more people and a world that is better fed than any other time in history. We are now better equipped to predict the impact of technological innovations and the events that will affect the fortunes of nations. These decisions will also determine the fate of civilization over the next 75 years.

I am neither pessimist or optimist. I am a scientist trying explain how the world works. The best foundation for understanding the unknowable future, past, and present is to have a realistic grasp of the past. We cannot predict the future, but we do know that there will be a mix between setbacks and progress, despite our inability to be specific. The future is uncertain, just as it was ever. Its outcome is dependent on our actions.

This article was adapted from Vaclav Smil’s new book, How the World Really WorksAn overview of key termsCurrent global issues, including the production of food, energy, and materials and the process and results of globalization.

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