Houston, We Have an Ecological-Governmental Problem
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, writing in Foreign Policy:
In this, Obama was following two decades of magical thinking among both greens and liberal Democrats about energy technology. 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…
The real technological obstacles to decarbonizing the global economy today represent an insurmountable obstacle to political efforts to limit carbon emissions. Until policymakers get serious about addressing the central technological challenge, all efforts to control carbon emissions are doomed.
The entire article is worth a read.
I think their criticisms of this policy–seen in the Waxman-Markey House Energy Bill–are solid. They correctly point out that the bill includes substantial giveaways to energy industries, much like insurance industry concessions in the health care bill.
But in what world is legislation going to get through the US Congress that isn’t rife with all kinds of industry goodies?
If we want to fund (as Nordhaus and Shellenberger prefer, and I’m with them on this one) R&D, how is that not going to create government-industry alliances? They might benefit different industries than in the Waxman-Markey bill, but this sounds to me like the same basic program, just with different recipients on the other end.
Particularly when Nordhaus and Shellenberger call for this:
However, the technologies we need will not materialize in response to carbon prices or emissions caps. Nor will they arrive, as many conservatives would have it, by getting the government out of the way and simply allowing a new generation of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to tinker away in their garages.
Rather, 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.
If the money is going to spent anyway (which I assume it will be), I generally think the Nordhaus-Shellenberger proposal would be a much better allocation of federal resources than a cap and trade bill laden with buy-offs for the energy industry. But we shouldn’t act as if it would be anything other than a different form of government-industry collaboration.
That said, I’m pretty skeptical of this idea:
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.
I agree with the authors that it is quite naive to assume that if government were simply out of the picture (as if that was ever going to happen, anyway) the proverbial free market would magically create green technologies. Nevertheless, the notion that there are going to be multiple Apollo and Manhattan Projects seems pretty far-fetched, at least in the US. Maybe China could pull such a thing off, though it would be very difficult. India or Brazil potentially. But the US? Where we can’t get a health care bill passed or a serious budget reduction (never mind debt reduction) off the ground?
The Manhattan and Apollo Projects are classic hallmarks of the 20th century nation-state paradigm. However, we now live in the market state. So while their criticisms are quite timely (of environmental orthodoxies on both right and left), I don’t really see their alternative having much going for it.
For those interested, I recommend Jeb Brugmann’s work as a creative alternative to this political and ecological impasse. I gather Brugmann would agree with Nordhaus-Shellenberger that pricing carbon will not be sufficient to address climate change. Contra Nord-Shell., Brugmann would point that there are already a great deal of options to alleviate this problem, but he is not arguing that the transition will be easy or painless–or that technology as such is the only issue. Brugmann points to ways in which alternate modes of social organization, use/reuse cycles, and the conception of the core problem of climate change (as a fundamentally urban problem) gets past the singular-focus (imo) of markets and technology in both cap and trade legislation and the Nordhaus-Shellenberger Manhattan clean technology project.