The Wrong Solution to Climate Change

I confess I didn’t follow the recent COP 21 climate change conference in Paris closely. But something came out of the conference that simultaneously intrigued, frustrated, and baffled me: several countries will throw billions of more dollars at alternative energy research.

I’m not opposed to more funding for research. On the contrary, I welcome it. But it’s the wrong solution to the problem immediately at hand.

The goal is to stop—or at least slow—the rate of climate change. No one honestly knows whether it can be stopped. I doubt anyone is optimistic that it can be reversed.

The only hope of achieving this goal is to stop pouring carbon into the atmosphere. Not eventually. Not gradually. Stop it right now.

This means we need to replace all current energy production methods with sources that don’t burn carbon. The purpose of the mass infusion of research capital is thus to develop those sources.

But wait a minute: we already have them.

Herein lies my frustration. Solar, wind, hydro, and yes, even geothermal and, heck, I’ll throw in nuclear, too, are good enough today to power the entire world. Additional research can make these sources better, faster, and/or cheaper. Great. But research and development takes time—years, sometimes decades—and often the technical improvements it delivers are incremental, not revolutionary. We don’t have that time.

Moreover, given the choice between spending $20 billion on researching better alternative energy sources versus deploying alternative energy sources today using current, proven technologies, I’d take the latter. Again, the issue is time. We don’t have the luxury of waiting for years to see whether new R&D efforts get us from, say, 15% thin-film efficiencies to 25% efficiencies. That would be a fantastic achievement, but let’s deploy the less expensive 20% efficient silicon panels right now while we might still have time to avoid an irreversible global environmental catastrophe.

My point, in short, is that climate change isn’t a technological challenge for which the solution is more R&D. The challenge is a lack of political will, for which the solution is more political will. Politicians are unwilling to make the bold moves that could start moving the needle today. It’s a global problem, but in the U.S., a simple step President Obama could take to show more resolve here would be to make extending, or even increasing, the ITC a top priority. That would cost nothing and have more immediate impact than any government-sponsored R&D projects would. Or, what about eliminating competing research subsidies to the oil and gas industry? Or, what about instituting a national carbon tax to level the economic playing field between energy sources to reflect their true costs?

These are the kinds of moves we need. More R&D would be great, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think that’s the answer to climate change.

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