Andy Revkin writes in the New York Times today (see here) about what I believe is the climate debate of the decade. He mentions me and climateprogress.org by name (Note to self: Woo-hoo!).
This post will serve as an introduction to this crucial topic for new readers and old. I will devote many of the posts this week to laying out the “solution” to global warming, and a few to finishing off the debunking of the “technology breakthrough” crowd whose primary champion has been the Bush Administration but whose new champion is political scientist Roger Pielke (of recent Nature article fame). I hope you will stick around.
Why do I write so much about this topic of technology development vs. deployment — 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 US 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 cool, cogeneration, fuel cell cars, hydrogen, energy storage, advanced batteries, flywheels, ultracapacitors, hybrid vehicles, 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, who oversaw 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 that 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” here (plus a longer discussion in my book) — and I will revist 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. 1) There are people like me and Princeton’s Rob Socolow and the entire Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 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. 2) There are people who seem to recognize the urgency of the problem, like Jeffrey Sachs and Roger Pielke (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.
3) There are the people who don’t really believe in the seriousness of the problem, but because doing nothing is a politically untenable position at this time, they 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 US “climate policy” thanks to President Bush (see the post Bush climate speech follows Luntz playbook: “Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah.”. Other key “delayers” who have embraced this delaying tactic are Newt Gingrich (see “Anti-environment, anti-technology Gingrich tries to rewrite history. Don’t buy it or his new book” and Bj¸rn Lomborg (see here).
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 on climate change messaging [a must-read for all concerned citizens]: Read more