by Judith Curry
Not all problems will yield to technology. Deciding which will and which won’t should be central to setting innovation policy, say Daniel Sarewitz and Richard Nelson.
I came across very interesting Commentary that was published in Nature in 2008: Three rules for technical fixes, by Daniel Sarewitz and Richard Nelson. Excerpts:
For some social problems, scientific research and technological innovation deliver significant progress, whereas for others, such activities lead to little if any improvement.
In a world of limited resources, the trick is distinguishing problems amenable to technological fixes from those that are not. Our rules provide guidance in making this distinction, be it for education, disease prevention or even climate change.
Three rules for technical fixes:
I. The technology must largely embody the cause–effect relationship connecting problem to solution.
A key point, well-illustrated by vaccines, is that a technological fix needs to be successful within the context of a complex socio-technical system that is difficult to understand, let alone manage. Such clarity allows policy and operational coordination to emerge among diverse actors and institutions.
II. The effects of the technological fix must be assessable using relatively unambiguous or uncontroversial criteria.
From their earliest use, vaccines provoked opposition on moral and practical grounds, a trend that continues today. But opposition has not stemmed the long-term advance of vaccines. This is in part because their effectiveness is hard to argue against and because continual improvement has tended to answer objections about efficacy and risk. The situation stands in stark contrast to the teaching of reading, for which no particular method or theory has been able to achieve long-term or widespread dominance and for which compelling evidence of improved efficacy even over timescales of a century is lacking.
III. Research and development is most likely to contribute decisively to solving a social problem when it focuses on improving a standardized technical core that already exists.
Scientific understanding related to a standardized core is much easier to apply than science aimed at elucidating the theoretical foundations, causes or dynamics of a problem. When knowledge is not largely embodied in an effective technology, but must instead be applied to practice through, say, training, institutional incentives, organizational structures or public policies, the difficulty of improving outcomes is greatly amplified. Interpreting the results of management or policy innovations is difficult because of the many variables involved, few of which are directly related to the actual technology deployment. When the results of applying knowledge to practice are uncertain, the value of the new knowledge itself becomes subject to controversy.
The limits of technology
In the absence of an existing standardized core, therefore, R&D programmes aimed at solving particular social problems should neither be expected to succeed, nor be advertised as having much promise of succeeding, at least in the short and medium term. They should be understood and described as aiming at the creation of fundamental knowledge and the exploration of new approaches, with success possible only over the long term, and with a significant chance of failure.
Application to climate change
Despite enormous scientific, political and diplomatic efforts over the past two decades, no progress on reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions has been made. In the absence of technological fixes, progress towards significant reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions will remain frustratingly slow, uneven and inconclusive.
In principle, stabilizing atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations at levels deemed acceptable by climate experts can be achieved through radically reduced emissions or through direct removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. The suite of promising possibilities for reducing emissions — from nuclear fission, to photovoltaics, to on-site carbon capture and storage — offers attractive targets for R&D investments consistent with Rule III: existing technological capacities can leverage continued improvement. Nevertheless, successful transition to a low-emissions energy system requires effective management across all sectors of society and all uses of CO2-emitting technologies. Within this system, no particular technology fully encompasses the goal of the process — eliminating CO2 in the atmosphere. Rule I is violated. Moreover, because emissions-reducing technologies will compete with existing energy technologies supported by entrenched interests, and because there will be competition between the emerging technologies, we can expect ongoing technical and political debates about efficacy of specific technologies, as seen for biofuels today — a violation of Rule II. System-wide progress is therefore likely to be buffered by political processes similar to the ones that frustrate progress now.
In contrast, direct removal of CO2 from the atmosphere — air capture — satisfies the rules for technological fixes. Most importantly, air capture embodies the essential cause–effect relations — the basic go — of the climate-change problem, by acting directly to reduce CO2 concentrations, independent of the complexities of the global energy system (Rule I). There is a criterion of effectiveness that can be directly and unambiguously assessed: the amount of CO2 removed (Rule II). And although air-capture technologies have been remarkably neglected in both R&D and policy discussions, they nevertheless seem technically feasible (Rule III).
Our rules do not allow us to predict if air-capture technologies will in fact help stabilize greenhouse-gas concentrations. Certainly these technologies face technical, political and economic obstacles. Our rules do, however, allow us to strongly predict that stabilization is unlikely to be achieved, except in the very long term, without something like air capture. Such technologies should therefore receive much greater attention in energy innovation portfolios.
The climate-change example illustrates an important final point: technological fixes do not offer a path to moral absolution, but to technical resolution. Indeed, one of the key elements of a successful technological fix is that it helps to solve the problem while allowing people to maintain the diversity of values and interests that impede other paths to effective action. Recognizing when such opportunities for rapid progress are available should be a central part of innovation policy, and should guide investment choices.
This article was written in 2008; some refinements in analyzing CO2 stabilization policies (either emissions reductions or air capture) can be made more effectively in 2016.
Re I, the causal chain between atmospheric CO2 concentration and decadal to century fluctuations in climate hasn’t been nailed down very well. There are unexplained decadal and multidecadal fluctuations in climate (including global average temperature anomalies) that are not explained by rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The quantitative relative importance of human caused versus natural climate change in 21st century climate variability remains an unresolved issue (JC message to Gavin: no I don’t buy your statements of 100% or 80-120% anthropogenic that you have tweeted and blogged because I am not accepting that your climate models are up to the task of attributing and projecting climate variability on decadal to century time scales.)
Re II, the metric of choice seems to be global average surface temperature anomalies. As per I, we don’t know how to tell if future temperature increase is being slowed by CO2 emissions or natural variability. Further, the global temperature data continues to be debated – arguably the uncertainty in these estimates is greater than is portrayed.
Re III, conceivable technologies are not up to the task of limiting global warming to 2C (as per the climate sensitivities of global climate models). Recall, even if we manage to figure out zero emissions for the global power supply (an extremely tough challenge on the timescale of a few decades), that is only ~40% of the job — we still need to figure out transportation, agriculture, cement production, etc.
So, what is the point of policies targeted at reducing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, in context of our concerns about avoiding dangerous human caused climate change?
It doesn’t seem that the problem of limiting the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere below certain targets designed at limiting warming to 1.5 or 2.0C in context of the amount of warming expected from climate models is amenable to technological fixes on the timescales of 2030 or 2050, which is what the UNFCCC is expecting.
So, why pursue this path, beyond investing in long-term R&D? Wouldn’t the resources be better spent on reducing regional vulnerability to extreme weather and climate events? The answer seems to be in seeking some sort of moral absolution and promoting an agenda that goes far beyond the avoidance of dangers from climate change.
technological fixes do not offer a path to moral absolution.