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We’ll Innovate Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis or Die Trying

Generating power in the Mojave desert. Photo: Mike Blake/REUTERS

Climate science and political realism are two bitter tastes that taste even more wretched together.

Today’s best-case ecological scenario was a horror story just three decades ago. In 1993, Bill Clinton declared that global warming presented such a profound threat to civilization that the U.S. would have to bring its “emissions of greenhouse gases to their 1990 levels by the year 2000.” Instead, we waited until 2020 to do so; in the interim, humanity burned more carbon than it had since the advent of agriculture. Now, it will take a historically unprecedented, worldwide economic transformation to freeze warming at “only” 2 degrees — a level of temperature rise that will turn “once in a century” storms into annual events, drown entire island nations, and render major cities in the Middle East uninhabitable in summertime (at least for those whose lifestyles involve “walking outdoors without dying of heatstroke”). This is what passes for a utopian vision in 2021. If we confine ourselves to mere optimism — and assume that every Paris Agreement signatory meets its current pledged target for decarbonization — then warming will hit 2.4 degrees by century’s end.

The reality of our ecological predicament invites denial of our political one. Put simply, it is hard to reconcile the scale of the climate crisis with the limits of contemporary American politics. Delusions rush in to fill the gap. Among these is the fantasy of national autonomy; the notion that the United States can save the planet or destroy it, depending on the precise timeline of its domestic decarbonization. A rapid energy transition in the U.S. is a vital cause, not least for its potential to expedite similar transformations abroad. But the battle for a sustainable planet will be won or lost in the developing world. Although American consumption played a central role in the history of the climate crisis, it is peripheral to the planet’s future: Over the coming century, U.S. emissions are expected to account for only 5 percent of the global total.

There is also the delusion of “de-growth’s” viability. The fact that there is no plausible path for global economic expansion that won’t entail climate-induced death and displacement has led some environmentalists to insist on global stagnation. Yet there is neither a mass constituency for this project, nor any reason to believe that there will be any time soon. Freeze the status-quo economy in amber, and you’ll condemn nearly half of humanity to permanent poverty. Divide existing GDP into perfectly even slices, and every person on the planet will live on about $5,500 a year. American voters may express a generalized concern about the climate in surveys, but they don’t seem willing to accept even a modest rise in gas prices — let alone a total collapse in living standards — to address the issue. Meanwhile, any Chinese or Indian leader who attempted to stymy income growth in the name of sustainability would be ousted in short order. It’s conceivable that one could radically reorder advanced economies in a manner that enabled living standards to rise even as GDP fell; Americans might well find themselves happier and more secure in an ultra-low-carbon communal economy in which individual car ownership is heavily restricted, and housing, healthcare, and myriad low-carbon leisure activities are social rights. But nothing short of an absolute dictatorship could affect such a transformation at the necessary speed. And the specter of eco-Bolshevism does not haunt the Global North. Humanity is going to find a way to get rich sustainably, or die trying.

Thus, the chasm between the ecologically necessary and the politically possible can only be bridged by technological advance. And on that front, the U.S. actually has the resources to make a decisive contribution to global decarbonization — and some political will to leverage those resources. Unfortunately, due to some combination of fiscal superstitions and misplaced priorities, the Biden administration’s proposed investments in green innovation remain paltry. An American Jobs Plan with much higher funding for green R&D is both imminently winnable and environmentally imperative. U.S. climate hawks should make securing such legislation a top priority.

The choice before us is techno-optimism or barbarism.

If governments are forced to choose between increasing income growth in the present, and mitigating temperature rise in the future, they are going to pick the former. We’ll get cheap, lab-grown Kobe beef before we get a U.S. Senate willing to tax meat, and steel plants powered by “green hydrogen” before we get anarcho-primitivism with Chinese characteristics.

The question is whether we’ll get such breakthroughs before it’s too late.

Techno-optimism has its hazards, but the progress we’ve made toward decarbonization has come largely through technological innovation. When India canceled plans to construct 14 gigawatts of new coal-fired power stations in 2019, it did not do so in deference to international pressure or domestic environmental movements, but rather to the cost-competitiveness of solar energy. The same story holds across Asia’s developing countries: Thanks to a ninefold reduction in the cost of solar energy over the past decade, the number of new coal plants slated for construction in the region has fallen by 80 percent. Meanwhile, the road to an electric-car revolution was cleared by a collapse in the cost of lithium batteries, the challenge of powering cities with solar energy on cloudy days was eased by a 70 percent drop in the price of utility-scale batteries, and wind power grew 40 percent cheaper. Our species remains lackluster at solidarity and self-government, but we’ve got a real knack for building cool shit.

The technological progress of the past decade was not sufficient to compensate for tepid climate policy. But real techno-utopianism has never been tried: As of 2019, global spending on clean energy R&D totaled $22 billion a year, or 3 percent of the Pentagon’s annual budget. Increasing spending on such research — while expediting cost-reductions in existing technologies by deploying them en masse — should be twin priorities of American climate policy.

A worker at an energy-storage facility in California. Finding solutions for efficient energy storage will be a key to designing a greener electrical grid. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The preconditions for green industrialization can be made in America.

The United States has more fiscal capacity and better-financed research universities than any nation on the planet. And, for all the pathologies of our politics, public investment in green tech inspires far weaker opposition than many less-indispensable climate policies. In fact, late last year, with Republicans controlling the Senate and Donald Trump in the White House, the U.S. increased funding for zero-emission technology R&D by $35 billion. America does not have sovereignty over enough humans to save the planet by slashing our domestic emissions. But we just might have the resources and political economy necessary to help the developing world save us all.

Although progress on renewables has exceeded optimistic expectations, the technical obstacles to global decarbonization remain immense. In the most optimistic scenario, scaling up existing, cost-competitive technologies can get us about 16 percent of the emissions reductions necessary for achieving net-zero by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. Driving down the price of tech we already have will get us another 39 percent. The rest must come from technologies that have yet to be fully developed. We need electrified cement, hydrogen-powered steel plants, and evaporative cooling. We need utility-scale energy storage, electric airplanes, and ultra-high voltage transmission lines. And we’d be remiss to not toss a bit of our collective wealth at game-changing hail marys like nuclear fusion.

Meanwhile, the U.S should concentrate its (politically) limited resources for domestic decarbonization on the projects most likely to accelerate cost reductions in technologies that are indispensable for low-carbon industrialization. The collapse in the price of solar over the past decade was not born of impartial market forces; public subsidies enabled an expansion of solar production, which enabled “learning by doing,” which enabled the massive price cuts. With sufficient investment, the U.S. should be able to fuel similar cost reductions in batteries and electric vehicles.

The possibilities of green energy are endless. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden’s climate plan is weaker than it needs to be.

Joe Biden’s green agenda would bring significant progress on all of these fronts. But it is also flawed in ways that are not obviously attributable to political necessity. The chief failings of the American Jobs Plan, from a climate-realist perspective, are twofold: Its overall climate spending is too modest and backloaded, and the percentage of that spending devoted to R&D is too small.

Press coverage of the Biden plan tends to emphasize its headline numbers — the $2.25 trillion in total spending on “infrastructure” (loosely defined), and the $650 billion in funding for the green energy transition. But this spending is parceled out over eight years, a policy design that makes some sense from the perspective of demand management, but little from that of decarbonization. As a political matter, the dollar-value of Biden’s proposed spending is more salient than the pace of its disbursement. Joe Manchin’s appetite for tax hikes and deficit spending may place a hard limit on the size of the infrastructure package. But whether the plan’s climate funds are allocated in two years or ten, the amount of debt and new revenue required to pass it will remain the same. By contrast, the more front-loaded the legislation’s green investments are, the more decarbonization it will deliver per dollar. Once new fossil-fuel infrastructure is built, decades worth of dirty emissions get “locked-in” by the sunk costs. Had it taken a bit longer for solar to achieve cost-competitiveness, there would be a lot more freshly built coal plants in the world today. Thus, even if the sum of climate spending is fixed by the irrationality and myopia of moderate Democratic senators, the White House should at least try to get money out the door faster. The threat of modest, short-term inflation pales in comparison to that of ecological disaster.

The second major flaw in Biden’s package is its underinvestment in R&D. In its substance, the innovation portion of the infrastructure plan is strong: It includes funding for a new incubator of green tech, and demonstration projects for “utility-scale energy storage, carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, advanced nuclear, rare earth element separations and floating offshore wind.” But the plan devotes only $35 billion to these initiatives, or 5 percent of the bill’s overall climate spending. This can’t be blamed on political exigencies. As mentioned above, funding for green innovation is one of the few climate policies that has some genuine bipartisan support. It is highly unlikely that moderate Democrats would revolt if Biden shifted some money around to make R&D’s allowance less austere.

The industrial practices of the past — and political inanities of the present — have condemned us to an ecologically perilous future. But within the constraints of our historical moment, there remains room for maneuver. The next decade of industrial development will determine whether warming is disruptive or utterly catastrophic. If American climate hawks can leverage their nation’s resources to expedite a global green transition, then 2100 will be more hospitable than it looks.

We’ll Innovate Our Way Out of Climate Crisis or Die Trying