Techno-optimism vs realism

People who focus on climate change tend to identify as either optimistic or realistic. The optimists don't understand why anyone would want to be anything but an optimist. "We want to solve this thing, right?" And the realists don't understand how anyone could be so detached from reality. "Can't you see what's happening?"

I have been in both camps at different times. Growing up, I was probably somewhere in between. I saw there was a big problem but didn't understand it well enough to think it might not be solvable by some deliberate policy or consumer choices, as so many things seem solvable with either or both. Around 2018, I learned so much about the many kinds of carbon removal that I grew optimistic that we could scale removal processes fast enough to bend the curve of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere down, and then continue drawing down for a few decades to bring carbon levels back to pre-industrial. When I started working with Probable Futures, I learned just how soon the effects of near-term warming would likely begin destabilizing important parts of how our civilization works, and therefore how important resilience and adaptation efforts are to keeping modern life going as it is, including all the work to incubate optimistic climate solutions like my hoped-for plurality of gigaton-scale carbon removal efforts.

Having taken a journey to different destinations in the climate optimist vs realist universe, I'm convinced that they are all right. Technology does advance at a pace that few people can predict, and therefore there is good reason to be optimistic that the many bright minds working on brilliant climate solutions – rewilding and conservation, decarbonized industrial heat, regenerative agriculture, synthetic meat, grid-scale electricity storage, carbon removal, and much more – will realize breakthroughs sooner and at larger scales than many of the realists can yet imagine. And, all those innovative efforts depend on civilizational stability, which is threatened by near-term climate destabilization, and the even larger resulting second- and third-order effects like migration and geopolitical instability.

Thankfully, we can be both optimists and realists at the same time. We need the wisdom of both.