We’ve run out of time to wait for an unknown techno-fix to save us
Andy Revkin wrote in The New York Times last weekend about what I believe is the climate debate of the decade.
This post will serve as an introduction to this crucial topic for readers new and old. I will devote many posts this week to laying out the “solution” to global warming, and a few to debunking the “technology breakthrough” crowd.
Why do I write so much about this topic of technology development vs. deployment, especially when it sometimes seems like I am arguing with people who mostly agree with me about the nature of the problem? Three reasons. First, I think we have run out of time to wait for some unknown techno-fix to save us. We either peak in global fossil fuel use by 2020 (or earlier) and then cut emissions sharply — as our top climate scientists have been telling us with increasing urgency (see here and here) — or our children and the next 50 generations face the inevitability of tens of feet of sea level rise, widespread desertification, loss of most species on the planet, and other miseries that cannot be adapted to any meaningful sense of the word (see this post).
Second, I helped run the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy in the 1990s. That little-known billion-dollar office is the lead federal agency for both the development and deployment of most of the technologies needed to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Solar power, wind power, geothermal, LED lighting, efficient heating and cooling, cogeneration, fuel cell cars, hybrids, advanced batteries, flywheels, ultracapacitors, industrial efficiency, cellulosic ethanol (and its feedstocks), biomass gasification, high-temperature superconductors — you name it, we funded it. And the same for programs to accelerate the deployment of every one of those technologies into the market. (For two years before that, I worked for the Deputy Secretary of Energy, overseeing all energy programs, including nuclear, “clean” coal, and natural gas.) I helped lead the Clinton administration’s effort to develop a climate technology strategy, encompassing both technology development and deployment.
One of the things I learned at DOE is that technology breakthroughs that dramatically change how we use energy are incredibly rare — in my talks, I defy listeners to name a single one that has occurred in the last quarter-century. Nobody’s ever done it. I have a long blog post on the “breakthrough myth” (plus a longer discussion in my book) and I will revisit this in a few days. I also learned just how energy inefficient most homes, offices, and factories are.
Third — and this is a key point for me that Revkin missed in his NYT story — there are actually three groups in this epic debate, not two.
- There are people like me and Princeton’s Rob Socolow and the entire IPCC who believe we have now (or soon will have) the technologies needed to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at acceptable levels (below 450 ppm) — and that we must spend a lot more money on R&D into new technologies at the same time.
- There are people who seem to recognize the urgency of the problem, like Jeffrey Sachs and Roger Pielke, Jr. (both quoted in the NYT piece), but who think we need “a fundamentally new set of technologies” or “enormous advances in energy technology” to solve the problem.
- There are the people who don’t really believe in the seriousness of the problem, but because doing nothing is a politically untenable position, offer the hope of new technology as the solution. For them, “new technology” is nothing more than a delaying tactic, and they don’t even bother to back up their words with significant increases in funding for R&D. This is what I call the “technology trap.”
The intellectual framework for the technology trap was laid out by GOP strategist Frank Luntz (see below). It then became the cornerstone of U.S. “climate policy,” thanks to President Bush. (See the post “‘Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah’ — Bush climate speech follows Luntz playbook.” Other key “delayers” who have embraced this delaying tactic are Newt Gingrich and Bjorn Lomborg.)
A bit more on the origins of the technology trap. Conservative message maker Luntz realized that it could be politically dangerous to oppose any action on global warming, even if efforts to obfuscate the climate science were successful. Luntz lays out a clever solution to this conundrum in his 2002 “Straight Talk” memo (PDF) on climate change messaging (a must-read for all concerned citizens):
Technology and innovation are the key in arguments on both sides. Global warming alarmists use American superiority in technology and innovation quite effectively in responding to accusations that international agreements such as the Kyoto accord could cost the United States billions. Rather than condemning corporate America the way most environmentalists have done in the past, they attack us for lacking faith in our collective ability to meet any economic challenges presented by environmental changes we make. This should be our argument. We need to emphasize how voluntary innovation and experimentation are preferable to bureaucratic or international intervention and regulation.
That’s why I call this the technology trap, because the promise of new technology is used to delay rather than foster action on climate change.
You can see why we must all be very wary of people who say the solution is new technology. Even very well-meaning people like Sachs (who I will blog on later this week) may not understand how he is playing into the hands of the delayers by saying “we need a fundamentally new set of technologies” to solve the climate problem without destroying the economy. Anyone should be worried when they sound like the president’s science adviser, John H. Marburger III, who said in 2006:
It’s important not to get distracted by chasing short-term reductions in greenhouse emissions. The real payoff is in long- term technological breakthroughs.
Or when you sound like then Bush Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, who said in 2003:
Either dramatic greenhouse gas reductions will come at the expense of economic growth and improved living standards, or breakthrough energy technologies that change the game entirely will allow us to reduce emissions while, at the same time, we maintain economic growth and improve the world’s standards of living.
Now, just because the climate destroyer delayers in the Bush administration all push breakthrough technologies as their primary solution to global warming does not mean it is inherently a misguided idea (what am I saying? Of course it does!). Well, it would be misguided even if they didn’t, as I will explain see this week. We don’t lack the technology to avert a climate catastrophe while sustaining global economic development. We merely lack the political will.