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Climate Optimism

By Lorenzo Torri

The title of this article may seem weirdly worded for a lot of people. «Pardon my French, sir, but what the f@ck is there to be optimistic about the climate?» I hear most people say. Well, most people would be right. We can’t be very much optimistic, at least not when it comes to the data we receive and the situation we are in. We can and should be optimistic, however, about an interesting trend.

In a recent blog article, Noah Smith argues that, "despite their pessimism of the intellect, [activists] should embrace optimism of the will. Not only does despair ultimately not help anything, but it’s increasingly unwarranted — yes, things are tough right now, but recent developments mean that the climate has more of a fighting chance than it has in recent memory. And the reason is that unlike the discouraged climate activists, can-do types in science, business and government have been rolling up their sleeves and fighting the good fight".

What does Smith mean when he says that the climate has a fighting chance? He better substantiates his proposition later on, in the last extract I am going to report (recommending the original article instead[1]): "Activists are understandably leery of the idea that new technologies will come along to save the planet just in the nick of time. After all, the incentives are in no way aligned for such a deus ex machina — given the fundamental externality of carbon emissions, there’s no reason why scientists and engineers should care enough about the climate to spend their lives inventing stuff to fix it. And yet, they do. Even if the public doesn’t take the climate problem seriously enough, scientists and engineers do. And they have poured their hearts and souls and careers and fortunes into creating cheap solar, cheap wind, cheap reliable batteries".

The trends which he makes reference to are the following:

And here is what Smith was talking about: not only can we count on that wonderful share of scientists and activists who, despite adverse incentives, set themselves the objective of developing new technologies and improving existing ones, but now we can even count on people’s self-interest. This is wonderful news for us, since we remember well the insight of another, more important (I’m sure Noah won’t keep a grudge for this) Smith: self-interest is what ultimately drives society. With well-aligned incentives, it can drive society towards a better future. As we can see from the graph, renewable energy is becoming cheaper and cheaper, whereas fossil fuels technology, which has been for far longer in development, is not making much progress. Moreover, people and firms in Europe are experiencing a dire energy crisis, which should teach them a lesson about energy autonomy and discourage them to keep importing the bulk of their energy from fossil fuels-rich countries. It is not only better for the environment, but also surer and better in the long-run to invest on renewables.

Let us be clear : we have not won just yet. In fact, we are not even halfway through. What should generate optimism and willingness to fight, however, is that now we have the right weapons to win it.



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