Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger make a compelling argument that the Obama administration began by correctly focusing on clean energy technology development, but unfortunately it “succumbed, like many others, to a sort of magical climate thinking that promised a painless and even prosperous transition to a low-carbon future with the tools already at hand.” This “magical thinking,” they argue, goes like this:
In this view, energy efficiency pays for itself, solar and wind power are already nearly cost competitive with fossil fuels, and both can quickly and cheaply reduce emissions. This Pollyanna view of fossil fuel alternatives and efficiency, which makes going green seem cheap and easy — little more than the cost of “a postage stamp a day” — has provided the justification for green-policy advocacy that has overwhelmingly focused on pollution regulations and carbon pricing while ignoring serious investment in energy research and development…
In the aftermath of Copenhagen and the potential collapse of cap and trade negotiations in the United States, the faults of this magical climate strategy are clear:
The collapse of international climate negotiations in Copenhagen last month was just the latest evidence that efforts to regulate global pollution output cannot succeed. The Kyoto framework, which imagined that carbon pollution limits could be the primary driver of the complete transformation of the global energy economy, has irretrievably failed… [it] marks not just the end of the United Nations as the primary venue for global climate negotiations but also the abandonment of binding emissions-reduction targets and timetables as the primary vehicle for achieving emissions reductions. Targets will continue to be tossed around, either as aspirational goals or as loophole-riddled sops to appease greens. But the real international action on climate change and energy will involve bilateral and multilateral negotiations to develop and deploy clean energy technologies.
The solution is to focus on bridging the clean energy technology gap:
…we need to create a new clean energy economy in the same way we created our information economy: by identifying a set of well-defined technical problems and mobilizing the human resources of our technologically advanced civilization — our scientists, laboratories, universities, and engineers — to solve them.
These technical questions are not difficult to grasp and in fact have already largely been laid out by Chu in his remarks to the New York Times. How do we convert sunlight into energy much more efficiently than solar panels do today? What combination of chemicals can store more energy in batteries that are smaller and lighter? How can we manufacture a next generation of self-contained nuclear reactors that are safer, smaller, and cheaper than the large ones of the 1950s and 1960s? And how can we engineer new biological organisms to serve as a cheap fuel alternative to oil?
Solving global warming’s technology challenges will require not a single Apollo program or Manhattan Project, but many. We need to solve technical problems across a range of technologies and at a variety of stages along the road from technological development to demonstration to commercialization to mass deployment…
The hard work of mobilizing the resources and institutions necessary to engineer our way to a low-carbon economy will look profoundly different from both the histrionics at Copenhagen and the slick sales pitch offered by carbon traders in Washington. International agreements to share the burden and the benefits of developing better and cheaper low-carbon energy technologies will represent the central focus of international climate negotiations. Such agreements will extend well beyond simply agreeing to underwrite more laboratory research. They will require large financial commitments to demonstrate these technologies and create physical and institutional infrastructures that can support their commercialization.
They conclude with this:
Solving the technology challenge will not be easy, but in terms of our collective wealth and knowledge we are in a better position today than at any other point in our history. In the end, global efforts to address the climate challenge, if they are to succeed, must centrally focus upon the creation of a new and extraordinarily important global public good: the development of low-carbon energy technologies that are cheap, clean, and abundant. After two decades of domestic and international failure to take real action on climate change, it is time for the purveyors of magical thinking to take their exit so that the main act can begin.