"The Debate of the Decade Revisited — Avoiding the Technology Trap"
The NYT‘s Andy Revkin replied to my earlier post (“The religion of technology pessimism gains a disciple at the New York Times“) with “What Will Drive the Energy ‘Innovation Revolution’?”
I’m glad he replied since I view this issue as the debate of the decade as I wrote back in April. See “Welcome N.Y. Times readers to the debate of the decade: Technology development vs. deployment” — yes, I know, the title is d©ja vu all over again. That post really said it all, but here are the key points:
1) I (and others) have been urging for 20 years a dramatic ramp up in R&D funding.
2) We have now run out of time for hoping and praying for breakthrough technologies, which frankly, hardly ever come in the energy business, unlike, say, telecom (see here).
3) Fortunately, we now have all the technology we need now for at least the next three decades — counting the stuff that is going to be commercialized in the next few years.
4) If we don’t aggressively deploy every existing piece of energy efficient and low carbon technologies over the next two decades, all the research in the world won’t stop catastrophe.
5) Many of the people who argue we need to spend huge amounts of money on research do so sincerely, but as we have seen again and again, the notion that “we can’t solve the climate problem without technology breakthroughs” is a premier strategy of the global warming Delayers, like Bush, Luntz, Crichton, Lomborg, and Gingrich (see here).
6) The biggest improvements in cost and performance in the key technologies now come from aggressive deployment, which takes you down the manufacturing learning curve and provides economies of scale. That’s why deployment is so much more important than research now. Also, the private sector including the venture capital community has started outspending the public sector in these areas, which is no surprise, since they have a lot more money. The more the governments of the world gets serious about action, the more that gap will grow.
7) When we get desperate to avert catastrophe — which we obviously aren’t now — we will spend more on research, but 10 to 100 times as much on deployment. Fundamentally whether you look at IEA or McKinsey or the IPCC or the 5-lab study I oversaw back at the office of energy efficiency in the mid-90s, avoiding catastrophic global warming requires shifting about 1% to 2% of all capital investments from inefficient, polluting stuff into clean, efficiency stuff.
Everybody has been begging for more energy R&D since Ronald Reagan slashed Jimmy Carter’s program. I’m delighted that so many people continue to beg for it. Now we just need people to start talking up — and actually doing — deployment, since it is more important, more urgent, and requires lots more money and effort.
Let me end with some points from my original post on this:
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 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 action, rather than to 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 Jeffrey Saches who may not understand how they are 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 Advisor, 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 at 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]. We don’t lack the technology to avert a climate catastrophe while sustaining global economic development. We merely lack the political will. That is the point of my series:
- Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us
- Is 450 ppm possible? Part 5: Old coal’s out, can’t wait for new nukes, so what do we do NOW?
- Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 4: The most urgent climate policy (and it isn’t a CO2 price)
- Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 3: The breakthrough technology illusion
- Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 2.6: What is the impact of peak oil and peak coal?
- Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 2.5: The fuzzy math of the stabilization wedges
- Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 2: The Solution
- Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 1
- Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 0: The alternative is humanity’s self-destruction