Technology alone will not solve the climate crisis

  • Rick Knight

    Rick Knight

  • Wharton Sinkler

    Wharton Sinkler

 
By Rick Knight and Wharton Sinkler
Posted9/23/2020 1:00 AM

Climate change is real, it's serious, and it's us. There's no legitimate debate about that. Global warming and other impacts are occurring in line with the scientific consensus, due to atmospheric greenhouse gases from fossil fuel use. For our own security we must take prompt steps to curtail these emissions.

While technology is central to achieving this, it's also important to recognize some common "techno-optimism" fallacies. These tend to take two forms.

 

The first is overselling our progress by declaring the "renewable revolution" as something unstoppable. Call this the "problem-solved" fallacy. It fails to distinguish between what our current technology can do and will do to address our climate challenge.

It's true that the potential supply of clean energy is huge, and prices of wind and solar are lower than fossil energy in some markets. But to achieve this potential will require generating much more renewable power, plus energy storage and new transmission lines. Meanwhile, owners of fossil fuel assets will fight to protect their "sunk costs" in power plants, fuel reserves, refineries, pipelines, and railroad cars. They will fight with price, because despite the dropping cost of renewables, fossil fuels can still be extracted from the earth at very low cost. This keeps their business model profitable, limiting investment and growth for renewables. It's not enough that our technology "can" achieve the needed changes; we need certainty that clean energy "will" double or triple in the next decade or less to unstoppably slash those emissions.

The flip side of the "problem solved" fallacy is a claim that if we just do more research, some inventor will deliver a breakthrough that gives us free clean energy forever. This acknowledges the challenge of solving the problem with current technology, but concludes that's OK because future breakthroughs will save us. Call this the "genius-in-a-garage" fallacy.

This fallacy wrongly implies that past and current energy research has been lacking, and it also fails to appreciate the barriers between research and commercialization. Clean energy has been a major focus of government, academic and industrial research for decades.

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Remember the "hydrogen economy," a federal initiative that spent billions on research in the early 2000s? Public dollars funded top-quality science and many fine inventions, but resulted in very little commercial technology. This is but one example of decades of energy research, which filled libraries with reports and blueprints based on brilliant ideas. But delivering a technology breakthrough requires going beyond ideas and lab tests to the experience gained in commercializing it.

In research and development, the chasm between completion of small-scale research and the big steps that follow is called the "valley of death." Traversing it involves raising money -- often tens or hundreds of millions -- to build and demonstrate those innovations at commercial scale. Getting investors to commit their money requires convincing evidence of a payoff and future growth. The chief obstacle, for virtually every new energy technology, is the difficulty of providing a clear financial advantage over dirt-cheap fossil fuels.

So, let's not fall for the "problem solved" techno-optimism fallacy, but look realistically at what it takes to accelerate the growth of clean energy. And let's not allow the "genius-in-a-garage" fallacy to delay action while we wait for a research breakthrough, but rather get to work implementing today's innovations while also continuing research on tomorrow's.

The techno-optimism fallacies are excuses for complacency. This is flawed, since the market condition of low fossil fuel prices is putting the brakes on progress, and we need action. If the prices of coal, oil and gas were to accurately reflect their costs to health and the climate, that would accelerate clean energy

implementation and the commercialization of breakthrough technologies by increasing the rewards of both. Pricing the carbon content of fossil fuels is a fair and effective measure to accomplish this, and it is increasingly supported by leaders in business, government, and the military. A predictable carbon fee is a responsible way to protect our security and that of future generations, and to achieve the progress we urgently need to address the climate crisis.

• Rick Knight, of Brookfield, is a Research Coordinator with Citizens' Climate Education. Wharton Sinkler, of Des Plaines, is a volunteer with Citizens' Climate Lobby's Northwest Suburbs Chapter. This essay is the third in a series of commentaries the Daily Herald is publishing this week in conjunction with Covering Climate Now, a global initiative of news agencies to focus attention on climate issues.

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