A Free-Market Energy Blog

Vaclav Smil: Antidote to Magical Thinking

By Richard W. Fulmer -- May 12, 2022

“What’s the point of setting goals which cannot be achieved? People call it aspirational. I call it delusional.” (V. Smil, below)

In an article filed under “climate crimes,” The Guardian claims that environmental nirvana is reachable if only politicians stop listening to Big Oil and start listening to social scientists. Author Amy Westervelt argues that the technology needed to achieve “net zero” carbon emissions is at hand; we just lack the will and the laws to implement it. She quotes from a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

Factors limiting ambitious transformation [to address climate change] include structural barriers, an incremental rather than systemic approach, lack of coordination, inertia, lock-in to infrastructure and assets, and lock-in as a consequence of vested interests, regulatory inertia, and lack of technological capabilities and human resources.

At least this quotation refers to real limitations, which contradicts Westervelt’s claim that:

The report made one thing abundantly clear: the technologies and policies necessary to adequately address climate change exist, and the only real obstacles are politics and fossil fuel interests.

Another restraint crops up later in her article: Lack of funding for the social sciences:

Less than 1% of research funding on climate from 1990 to 2018 went toward social sciences, including political science, sociology, and economics. That’s despite the fact that even physical scientists themselves agree that inaction on climate will probably not be solved by more scientific evidence.

Moreover, social scientists’ voices in the report were nefariously diluted by inclusion of oil interest contributions:

For the latest report, a senior staffer for Saudi Aramco – Saudia Arabia’s state-owned oil and gas company – was one of the two coordinating lead authors, a position of considerable influence, for the chapter on cross-sector perspectives. A longtime Chevron staffer was also the review editor for the chapter on energy systems.

The author dismisses oil producers’ claim that they are providing what people want, but does so with a non sequitur:

Despite the influence of oil companies and oil-rich nations, the report does still highlight the fossil fuel industry’s influence on policymaking, and eviscerates some of the industry’s favorite myths. In the new chapter on “Demand, Services and Social Aspects of Mitigation”, for example, researchers challenged the long-held belief that fossil fuel consumption is entirely driven by demand. “What we were able to demonstrate was actually the contrary: there is no sustainable development or development, full stop, possible without climate mitigation,” said Steinberger, who was a contributing author on the chapter.

“Unless you mitigate climate, the impacts are going to catch you every step of the way and just make people’s lives increasingly hard and miserable, especially in the global south.”

Sustainability impacts future consumption, not that of yesterday and today. It’s all faintly conspiratorial, implying that people consume fossil fuels only because the involved company deception.

The truth is more mundane: people consume fossil fuels because the fuels provide services that they want and need in relatively convenient and inexpensive forms.

Vaclav Smil Steps In

In a recent interview with the New York Times, energy expert Vaclav Smil offers an antidote to Westervelt’s magical thinking. Smil’s latest book, How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going, examines what he calls the “four pillars of modern civilization: cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia.” Creating these requires burning huge amounts of fossil fuels.

Given this reality, Smil maintains, we are not going to achieve decarbonization by 2050, much less 2030. “What’s the point of setting goals which cannot be achieved?” Smil asks. “People call it aspirational. I call it delusional.”

Check the China statistics. The country is adding, every year, gigawatts of new coal-fired power. Have you noticed that the whole world is now trying to get hands on as much natural gas as possible? This world is not yet done with fossil fuels. Germany, after nearly half a trillion dollars, in 20 years they went from getting 84 percent of their primary energy from fossil fuels to 76 percent.

Can you tell me how you’d go from 76 percent fossil to zero by 2030, 2035? I’m sorry, the reality is what it is.

Yet, Smil does not counsel despair:

[W]e are constantly transitioning and innovating. We went from coal to oil to natural gas, and then as we were moving into natural gas we moved into nuclear electricity, and we started building lots of large hydro, and they do not emit any carbon dioxide directly. So, we’ve been transitioning to lower-carbon sources or noncarbon sources for decades.

Moreover, we’ve been making our burning of carbon much more efficient. We are constantly transitioning to more efficient, more effective, and less environmentally harmful things. So, yes, we’ve been wasteful, but our engineers are not asleep. Even those S.U.V.s, as wasteful as they are, are getting better than they were 10 years ago. The world is constantly improving.

But he is contemptuous of political “solutions”:

I used to live in the westernmost part of the evil empire, what’s now the Czech Republic. They forever turned me off any stupid politics because they politicized everything. So it is now, unfortunately, in the West. Everything’s politics. No, it is not! You can be on this side or that side, but the real world works on the basis of natural law and thermodynamics and energy conversions, and the fact is if I want to smelt my steel, I need a certain amount of carbon or hydrogen to do it. The Red Book of Mao or Putin’s speeches or Donald Trump is no help in that. We need less politics to solve our problems. We need to look at the realities of life and to see how we can practically affect them….

What we need is the dull, factually correct and accurate middle. Because only from that middle will come the solutions. Solutions never come from extremes.

Amy Westervelt in The Guardian implies that all that is needed to solve global warming is will. Politicians, properly schooled, can wave their legislative wands, creating good and banishing evil. Green energy sources will pop up like mushrooms across the land, and fossil-fueled power plants will vanish into the mist.

Smil reminds us that physical laws and resource scarcities matter. Economics matters. Reliability matters. National, regional, and personal interests matter. Time matters.


  1. Denis Rushworth  

    “Author Amy Westervelt argues that the technology needed to achieve “net zero” carbon emissions is at hand; we just lack the will and the laws to implement it.”

    If Amy is right, one might think that a small island in a windy ocean could come up with a system of “renewables” that could achieve “net-zero carbon emissions.” (I think she really meant carbon dioxide but who knows?) Australia tried on such an island. King Island, Tasmania. About $45,000,000 was spent to build a system of solar panels, windmills, batteries and flywheels and electronic gadgetry to keep the electricity flowing for 1,600 people. As I write this, the only power source for the island are its diesel generators. There is no wind, but the windmills are consuming about 11 Kw of power, perhaps to keep them slowly turning so the rotors don’t warp. The battery is consuming about 5 Kw to keep itself up to snuff, and the flywheel is consuming 63 Kw for the same purpose I suppose. The faithfull diesels are producing about 1,400 Kw to keep the lights on and the refrigerators cold.

    Perhaps Australia simply lacks the will?


  2. Louis Woodhill  

    Yes, the problem is obviously a lack of will–a lack of will to return to the stone age.


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