“Passionate but confused”

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Last week I wrote about an essay by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger that criticized the environmental community’s strategy for addressing climate change and proposed instead increased government funding for “breakthrough technologies.” At the time, I was too lazy to pick apart the essay’s muddle of proposals. The nice thing about the blogosphere is that if you wait a few days, someone will do your job for you.

David Hawkins from the National Resources Defense Council hits the key point that we don’t need new technology to fight climate change. We need to deploy the technologies we have now. And we need to do so at a scale far beyond the scope of any government-funded spending program. As Hawkins notes, $17 trillion will be spent worldwide on energy services and infrastructure by 2030, most of it by the private sector.

The trick is to steer as much of that spending as possible toward low-carbon energy sources. N&S are oddly disparaging toward carbon caps and carbon taxes, but only economy-wide solutions such as these can achieve the sort of transformative changes so desperately needed.

To be sure, increased R&D is a necessary and useful part of any program to address climate change. But it isn’t the only or even the major part.

Update: Ted Norhaus responds to David Hawkins here. His defense is thin (and surprisingly shrill, with a completely gratuitous attack on “the true priorities of the environmental movement”). Basically, Nordhaus argues that he is in reality in favor of carbon regulation and swift deployment of clean tech, no matter what he may have strongly implied elsewhere. OK, fine. Please say what you mean then.

Update 2: David Roberts has a response to S&N here, in which he says a bunch of stuff that I agree with. And I mix it up some more with Shellenberger here.

Photo available under Creative Commons license by Flickr user Dano.

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  1. Michael Shellenberger - September 30, 2007

    Dear Adam,
    Thanks for weighing in.
    You may have missed a much longer piece we wrote that laid out the technical, economic, and political reasons why large public investments to quickly bring down the price of clean energy, both through R&D and outright deployment, are more important than pollution regulation. (Understandable since it’s elsewhere on the Grist blog.)
    It’s here:
    http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/9/27/12312/0380
    We were about as explicit as we could be given the constraints of space in the New Republic piece. We said investment was more important than regulation, and explained why.
    I would suggest that some people misread the New Republic piece because they are unaccustomed to a critique of regulation coming from individuals who believe we must move quickly, rather than slowly, in addressing global warming.
    Michael

  2. Adam Stein - September 30, 2007

    Hi Michael,
    Thanks for writing in. As I’ve said elsewhere, I really am supportive of many of the thoughts you’ve offered regarding the framing of issues generally referred to as “environmental.”
    Rest assured, though, that I wasn’t particularly thrown by a critique of regulation coming from those who favor quick action on climate change. I just fundamentally disagree that public investment is the best way to bring down the price of clean tech.
    You have made various analogies with the spread of the internet and the rapidly declining cost of microchips, but I just don’t see how these analogies are helpful to your argument. In both of these cases, it was the private sector that commercialized the technologies and drove their rapid advance.
    Of course, it seems everyone having this discussion is in favor of both increased public spending and a setting a price on carbon, so perhaps arguing about the relative importance of these various measures is a bit pointless…

  3. richard schumacher - October 3, 2007

    Wonder of wonders, there has been very little argument about one of N&S’s premises: that conservation alone cannot solve the world’s energy and environmental problems. Widespread recognition of that fact means we can start to make some progress.