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Smil & The Specificity of Happy Endings

People love science in large part for what they think of as its rigor, its clean, balls-and-strikes exactitude as compared with the rest of the world’s abject chaos. This love of scientific precision, of course, ignores all the parts of science that are routinely less than exact — for instance, when science tries to tell us how its findings should be translated into solutions.

In my previous life as the director of science communications for a large biodiversity conservation NGO, I was asked to edit a lot of biodiversity conservation science papers. As conserving biodiversity was (and is) generally not high up on the list of global or national priorities and biodiversity seems to many experts to be under attack from rampant global economic activity, these papers would often follow their dire findings by conclusions that called for a) an abrupt global reorientation to economic collectivism, deglobalization and sustainability if not degrowth, b) international political cooperation and c) unprecedented human reorientation to value the future at least as much as the present. In other words: a certain kind of utopia favored by a lot of academics.

I was sympathetic at first, but got more impatient with every new call for this utopia. The papers felt like cheats — so specific in their science, yet so unspecific and unrealistic and unsatisfying in their goals and who was on point for achieving them. When I pushed authors to provide more detail in their calls to action, it became clear they lacked those details (or the willingness to say them out loud). Saying “everything must change” is a meek, even empty or cowardly kind of utopianism. By avoiding the work of specificity, you can join with those many others who are unhappy with everything while not changing anything.

A long recent interview in The New York Times with energy economist Vaclav Smil on the global prospects of dealing with climate change brought this bad scientific habit back to me. The interview is a fifth of 200 proof Smilian pessimism about the prospects for quickly decarbonizing our energy systems — Smil being Smil, as Alex Trembath of the Breakthrough Institute tweeted.

Smil dismisses the ambitious decarbonization targets of COP26, IPCC reports and the Biden administration as examples of a “world of exaggerated promises and delusional pop science.” And for Smil, deadline goals such as “decarbonization of US electricity generation by 2035” aren’t just absurdly ambitious — they’re injurious to actual progress:

“What’s the point of setting goals which cannot be achieved? People call it aspirational. I call it delusional…I’m not against setting a goal. I’m all for realistic goals. I will not yield on this point. It’s misleading and doesn’t serve any use because we will not achieve it, and then people say, What’s the point? I’m all for goals but for strict realism in setting them.”

Many climate activists have dismissed this interview as Smil indeed being Smil, a habitual pessimist who failed over the past decade to foresee the explosion in solar and wind power development and who’s now blind to the potential of unleashed innovation to power decarbonization at unimaginable, even systemic scale. “Doesn’t he think we know it’s hard?” is one refrain I saw over and over.

But that framing misses what Smil is really calling for: precision in scientific calls to action. It’s not that it’s hard; it’s how it’s hard specifically (and what are our options to accomplish it anyway?). Smil understands what marketing and behavioral psychologists know about calls to action:They have to be specific if they’re going to work. Abstract calls to action “can leave people discouraged and stressed,” while specific calls to action “increase psychological well-being by focusing people’s energy around a particular behavior” (which translates into a greater likelihood they’ll actually perform the behavior).

The times call for as much solution specificity as you can muster possible. What would it take to do this, and how could we align forces to make sure “what it would take” happens? Delivering specific endings is what distinguishes the public expert from mere expertise. It’s also what gives us the best chance for a happy ending.