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The co-evolution of technological promises, modelling, policies and climate change targets


The nature and framing of climate targets in international politics has changed substantially since their early expressions in the 1980s. Here, we describe their evolution in five phases—from ‘climate stabilization’ to specific ‘temperature outcomes’—co-evolving with wider climate politics and policy, modelling methods and scenarios, and technological promises (from nuclear power to carbon removal). We argue that this co-evolution has enabled policy prevarication, leaving mitigation poorly delivered, yet the technological promises often remain buried in the models used to inform policy. We conclude with a call to recognise and break this pattern to unleash more effective and just climate policy.

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Fig. 1: Schematic representation of phases in climate policy describing the co-evolution of four key elements: climate politics, policy targets and framings, modelling methods and scenarios, and technological promises.


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This work was supported by the programme Greenhouse Gas Removal from the Atmosphere (grant no. NE/P019838/1), funded by the NERC, EPSRC, ESRC, BEIS, Met Office and the STFC in the UK. We thank A. Jarvis for advice on the history of modelling, S. Chew for assistance with the graphics and D. Tyfield, B. Willis and B. Szerszynski for stimulating discussions and feedback. Some of this material was presented at the Negative Emissions Conference in Gothenburg in May 2018 and at the European Association for Studies of Science and Technology (EASST) conference in Lancaster in July 2018. We also thank participants at both events for their constructive feedback.

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D.M. wrote the manuscript with support, including written contributions from N.M.

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Correspondence to Duncan McLaren.

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Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Wim Carton, Arthur Petersen and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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McLaren, D., Markusson, N. The co-evolution of technological promises, modelling, policies and climate change targets. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 392–397 (2020).

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