The realist

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Science  23 Mar 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6382, pp. 1320-1324
DOI: 10.1126/science.359.6382.1320

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Throughout his career from his home office near the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, Vaclav Smil has profoundly influenced how a generation of scientists, policymakers, executives, and philanthropists think about energy in all forms. In particular, his focus has been on how societies have transitioned from relying on one source of energy, such as wood, to another, such as coal. Now, as the world faces the daunting challenge of trying to curb climate change by weaning itself from fossil fuels, Smil's work on energy transitions is getting more attention than ever. But his message is not necessarily one of hope. Smil has forced climate advocates to reckon with the vast inertia sustaining the modern world's dependence on fossil fuels, and to question many of the rosy assumptions underlying scenarios for a rapid shift to alternatives.