Wednesday, December 19, 2012

More on breakthrough technologies

This summer in Oxford, I was asked what more specifically I mean when talking about “breakthrough technologies” in relation to climate change. Given the almost magic role that such technologies tend to play in my thinking about the future, it was definitely an appropriate question. My short answer was “technologies that we cannot even imagine today”. To my friend, I guess this was just further proof of how hopelessly utopian I have become. While she has also written a lot on intergenerational justice, climate change and the future, it was clear to me that she found it illusionary to tie our hopes of climate stabilisation to the emergence of such exotic far-future technologies.

Yet, if you would ask someone living in the late 19th century what kind of technologies that would be required to transport the close to three billion people who were carried by the world’s airlines last year, it would probably have been fair to answer just that, “I do not know”. The number of necessary innovations is simply too big and too remote from everyday life in the 1890’s.

While I would say that nuclear fusion is probably the closest real-world approximation of what I have in mind, it is far from certain that ITER and other related projects will bear fruit. Consequently, there is a need to develop a whole host of alternative blue-skies research projects that collectively will push the boundaries of human understanding. The problem with this is that any such research effort will require not only massive funding but also a vast number of highly qualified people. This in turns brings us back to the need for broad social investments and an accelerated rate of global economic integration. Only through such measures can we free up the necessary capital and labour to make breakthrough innovation possible.

Unfortunately, we are currently doing pretty much the opposite, as in cutting down on our social ambitions while frustrating the rise of the poor by maintaining agricultural subsidies and other protectionist policies. Even in these financially desperate times, it is worth noting that the European Union is planning to spend close to 40% of its budget (or €50 billion) on agricultural subsidies in 2013, money that clearly could have made an enormous long-term difference if it was instead invested in early childhood education or the expansion of public daycare in Southern Europe. But given the almost complete lack of political imagination, we should not be surprised that this is not happening. Instead of actively engaging with our planetary future, academics alike tend to remain hostage to romantic notions of “local community” and unable to translate their cosmopolitan intuitions into meaningful policy recommendations for the world as whole. Nothing of this is new. But as the long-term costs of this kind of procrastination are becoming increasingly obvious, and brute-force mitigation remains as politically impossible as ever, we are faced with an ever starker choice about the future, a choice that might just call for a dose of utopianism.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Mind the gap

One common mistake made by the environmental movement is to believe that people do not recognize the seriousness of the environmental crisis and, if only they had more information, they would automatically endorse environmentalist ethics. Yet, numerous theoretical frameworks have been developed to explain the gap between the possession of environmental knowledge and the lack of pro-environmental behaviour. What is still missing from these frameworks is the realization that the more acute the environmental crisis becomes, the more extreme will our response have to be in order to actually bring about sustainability. What would have been possible had the world taken the first warning signs about anthropogenic climate change seriously some thirty years ago is simply not possible anymore due to the cumulative nature of emissions and the risk of entering runaway states. This holds true for both lifestyle changes and the kind of bold investments in breakthrough R&D that I often advocate.

As a consequence, we can expect the political resistance to lifestyle changes to become even fiercer should it become known exactly how radical such changes would have to be to be effective in a world of seven-billion-plus people, not to mention the immense temptations of free-riding that such changes, if implemented in the most ecologically conscious countries, would give rise to among those less convinced. In addition, if such far-reaching lifestyle changes were ever to be implemented through government mandates (such as prohibitive taxes on meat consumption) rather than inner psychological change, it is not difficult to imagine that they would give rise to an enormous anti-environmentalism backlash or even trigger waves of economic migration. Thus, it may be that instead of meaningful action towards sustainability, we end up in a cultural war and increasingly intractable conflicts over identity.

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Friday, December 07, 2012

Why so little energy R&D?

If there are good reasons to think that a global reduction in greenhouse gas concentrations is highly dependent on the emergence of cheap and massively scalable carbon-neutral forms of energy, then it becomes important to ask why so little progress has been made in developing such new energy sources. Part of the reason for this is simply technical. Nuclear fusion research alone shows how extremely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive real-world energy innovation can be. While there is always some probability of sudden breakthroughs, it is not difficult to see the vast disconnect between the multi-decade nature of basic energy R&D and the political time horizons employed in most democracies. As our scientific knowledge becomes deeper and broader, we are also confronted by increasing levels of complexity which in turn generates an ever greater need for specialization. Unlike in the past, when a single gifted individual could make great breakthroughs, the future of technological evolution seems to depend on extensive collaborative research networks powered by a growing number of creative and highly educated individuals. Fortunately, thanks to rising prosperity and the fact that more and more people receive higher forms of education, the global talent pool from which such individuals can be drawn is also rapidly increasing. This is a point often missed in the traditional literature on sustainability which tends to focus overwhelmingly on the negative aspects of a burgeoning world population. Yet, beyond this technical dimension, the main reason for the lacking commitment to breakthrough innovation is probably the short-term statist frame within which the need for energy R&D is routinely evaluated. This narrow framing has been further reinforced by the global trend towards liberalization of electricity markets which has compelled utilities to concentrate on cost-cutting and their own short-term survival. In addition, the UNFCCC process itself has, somewhat paradoxically, taken focus away from the global proportions of the emissions gap and shifted it towards national carbon budgets. Thus, we should not be surprised to see that the rich countries of the world have focused on deploying fairly mature small-scale energy technologies such as wind power rather than on pursuing uncertain blue-sky research into the kind of breakthrough technologies needed to stabilize global atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. While some would of course point to the billions of dollar that have been allocated to projects such as ITER, it should be obvious that even such sums are woefully inadequate given the possibly catastrophic risks associated with a destabilization of the climate system.

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Thursday, December 06, 2012

Climate politics

For the environmental movement, the spectre of climate change has come to serve as a conclusive vindication of its long-held beliefs about the ecocidal nature of modern industrial civilization. In it, environmentalists see hard scientific evidence for the unsustainability of consumer capitalism but also a threat of sufficient apocalyptic proportions to make broader social change seem not only necessary but inevitable. While the environmental movement would presumably advocate similar lifestyle changes regardless of climate change, the urgency of the climate crisis is thought to offer a vehicle for “selling” these changes to an otherwise unenthusiastic society. It is in this context that we should consider why the environmental movement has shown so little enthusiasm for breakthrough innovation in energy R&D. While the rejection of any “techno-fix” to climate change is also a reflection of a more general distrust of “big science” it does not seem far-fetched to think that the environmental movement would not give a warm welcome to technologies that would make consumer capitalism sustainable at a global scale. Yet, secure in the belief that such technologies are physically impossible anyway or that they would always carry negative side-effects that would dominate over any ecological benefits, it is not surprising that the environmental movement has come to see the hope of radical innovation as a dangerous distraction from the immediate need for social transformation.

In this sense, lifestyle changes are thought to offer a faster and safer path to sustainability than uncertain R&D. Yet, it would be a mistake to think of this merely as a matter of tactics. Instead it is important to recognize that for much of the environmental movement, climate change is not so much a technical as a moral problem and, as such, it is thought to require a moral inner solution rather than a pragmatic worldly response. Unsurprisingly, this kind of moral absolutism has proven to be ill-suited for moving a pluralist world any closer towards climate stability. On the contrary, it has led to further political polarization and a stand-off between irreconcilable worldviews. If the stakes were smaller or the available time longer, it is possible that the world could afford such political posturing. Yet, after decades of failed climate negotiations, there seems to be an urgent need for the environmental movement to reconsider its strategic orientation lest there should be any chance of avoiding a catastrophic destabilization of the climate system.

To be meaningful, it would not be enough for the environmental movement to simply embrace mainstream forms of ecological modernization or to even accept the temporary need for an expansion of nuclear power, measures that clearly are not adequate to ensure global sustainability. Instead, it would have to fundamentally rethink how it sees the linkages between technological innovation, global development and environmental change in ways that would be capable of accommodating the diversity and pluralism of existing societies.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Morning walk

Almost every morning for the last three months, I have been taking a walk with Eddie through the hills of Kyung Hee University. As the trees have turned red and eventually lost their leaves, Eddie has grown increasingly aware of the world around him. It is simply breath-taking to now see him bounce up and down in the Jolly Jumper or to sense his curiosity when we meet new people.

This morning it was -5 degrees and crisp blue skies. We followed the same familiar path up to the College of Fine Arts, stopped by the dried out river bed and took in the fact that all this is really happening.