Can today’s technology tackle climate change? Who cares?
One of the most heated arguments among climate policy analysts is over the following question: “Do we currently have the technology we need to tackle climate change?” For brevity’s sake, I refer to it as the “enough technology” debate.
The way it usually breaks down is, those who say we don’t have the necessary technology focus on innovation and the need for “breakthroughs.” Those who say we do have the necessary technology focus on deployment — accelerating the adoption of today’s tech. For the amount of attention it gets, you’d think that settling this debate is the crucial first step in developing a policy plan or a political strategy. You’d think the “enough technology” question must be answered before anyone can move forward.
But as I see it, pretty much nothing hinges on the answer. Indeed, I find the whole debate baffling and confounding.
The latest outbreak has come in the wake of a report from a panel of energy analysts in California that spent the last two years digging in to what it would take for the state to meet its ambitious climate goal (reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050, even as its population grows from 37 million to 55 million and demand for energy doubles). It released its report earlier this year: California’s Energy Future—The View to 2050. It’s a fascinating read with some important insights; for instance, it totally rejects the use of biofuels for passenger vehicles (we need to save them for hard-to-electrify stuff like freight trucks and planes).
Unfortunately, it seems only to have stoked the “enough technology” fight. Andy Revkin read the report as proving that he’s right; it’s all about innovation. Joe Romm and Robert Collier read the report as proving that they’re right; it’s all about deployment. In introducing the report, panel member Jane C.S. Long from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory seems to wade in, saying “California can’t just spend or deploy its way to an 80% reduction or beyond” and that “major advances” in technology will be required. Brad Plumer also stokes the fire with his headline.
Here are the top five reasons why this debate seems pointless to me.
1. There are no conceivable circumstances under which we’d have to solve climate with current technology. Technology evolves. Nobody could stop it if they wanted to. Whatever we’re doing in 2040, we’re not going to be doing it with 2010 technology. So how can it be anything but an academic question what the outer limits of today’s tech is?
2. Even the most enthusiastic fans of deployment acknowledge the need for innovation. Even if climate change can be addressed with today’s technology, obviously it would be cheaper and easier with better technology. Nobody but right-wing cranks thinks the U.S. is spending enough money on energy R&D. Nobody who’s paying attention would deny that the U.S. needs coherent innovation policy, not only in energy but across the board. Technology development is a social and economic good; that is true irrespective of the answer to the “enough technology” question.
3. Even the most enthusiastic fans of innovation acknowledge — or should acknowledge — the need for deployment. After all, the California report shows that the state can get to 60 percent reductions with current tools, but only if those tools are immediately and aggressively deployed at scale. The need for large-scale deployment, beginning now, would not disappear even if the much-desired “major advances” in technology suddenly appeared. After all, we’re not even close to fully deploying today’s technology; if new technology showed up, who’s to say we’d deploy that any more effectively? The deployment problem would still have to be solved.
4. Deployment is a vital driver of innovation. One of the best ways — maybe the best way — to improve the efficiency and bring down the cost of a technology is to scale it up. That brings the competitive pressures of markets to bear, gets more people working on it, and drives continuous innovation. That’s exactly what’s driving the precipitous drop in solar power prices. Obviously a holistic innovation strategy will involve more than deployment, but it will definitely involve deployment!
5. The limits that most matter are political, not technological. This is what really exposes the futility of the “enough technology” debate. We are not even close to doing as much as we can, cost-effectively, with the technology we’ve got. Why not? Because fossil fuels have a lock on our sociopolitical systems. Because American politics is ridden with choke points where a vocal minority can block progress and there is a core of angry conservative white men determined to block it. There is no technology so cheap and wondrous that it can bypass politics, so determining the outer limits of today’s (or tomorrow’s) technology is at best an academic exercise; for the foreseeable future, it’s pushing the limits of politics that’s most important.
Having this debate is like being a group of travelers in Key West, Fla., who need to get to Seattle within the week, only Republicans have lowered the gate and prevented us from getting out of the parking garage, and instead of figuring out how to get the damn gate open, we’re sitting in the van arguing about whether to cut west across Kansas or go further north and cut across South Dakota.
Maybe at some point we’ll get close to the limits of current technology and need to hash out the best way to expand those limits. Maybe the right policy balance between deployment and innovation will become politically salient. But right now, we have pathetically little of either and we need gargantuan amounts of both. So maybe, just for the time being, we could stop arguing over cosmic hypotheticals and focus on getting the hell out of the parking garage.