clock menu more-arrow no yes

Here’s a sign of a more constructive debate on clean energy innovation

light bulbs (Shutterstock)

Climate change is a very large, very urgent problem. This has led to a peculiar and singularly unproductive fight within the climate community.

Those who focus on the "urgent" part say that the overwhelming priority should be to deploy existing low-carbon technologies. We simply don't have time to wait for energy breakthroughs or miracles, they say. Time is up; we have to do as much as we can with the technology we have, as fast as possible.

Those who focus on the "large" part of climate change say there's no way existing technologies can satisfy the rapidly rising energy needs of developing countries, at least not without a politically unrealistic level of expense and difficulty. They say we need better, cheaper low-carbon tech if we ever hope to reduce global carbon emissions close to zero.

If your first reaction is, "Gosh, aren't they both kind of right?" — congratulations. Yes. They are both right, which is why it's mostly a goofy argument.

A few years ago I wrote a post about the deployment versus innovation fight, its history and its silliness; read that if you want more background.

Suffice to say, the tensions between the camps has run pretty deep at times, going beyond strategy into ideological and personal disputes. For a long time, it seemed like the main function of the innovation crowd was to demean actually existing policies and environmentalists. And it seemed like even the barest mention of research or innovation could get someone branded a delayer or denier by deployment-focused environmentalists.

It might be wishful thinking on my part, but it seems like some of the antagonism between the camps has begun to drain a bit, especially as the movement for innovation has spread out and drawn in more diverse voices. (Its original and most fervent proponents did themselves no favors.)

Since no one can reasonably defend the pathetic amount of money the US spends on clean energy research and innovation, it may be time for a more productive discussion about how to enhance (not replace — enhance) US climate policy with an eye on innovation.

A both-and innovation argument

All this is by way of drawing your attention to a fine new piece in Foreign Affairs, by Varun Sivaram, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Teryn Norris, a former special adviser at the US Department of Energy who got his start at Breakthrough. It's about the sad state of clean energy innovation and how to improve it.

This is obviously not the main takeaway, but I was struck that the piece manages to get through several thousand words without mocking or berating the climate movement or environmentalists; without inveighing against other climate and clean energy policies; without forcing readers to buy into grandiose dorm-room theories about the Anthropocene; without forcing unnecessary either-or choices.

Witness:

Fighting climate change successfully will certainly require sensible government policies to level the economic playing field between clean and dirty energy, such as putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions. But it will also require policies that encourage investment in new clean energy technology, which even a level playing field may not generate on its own.

Both! And! See how easy that is?

It's a small gesture, but likely to create a much more receptive attitude among greens, who are, and have always been, the most natural allies of the clean energy innovation effort.

There's a lot packed in the piece. Sivaram and Norris describe the history of clean-energy innovation funding in the US, explain why it has followed such a boom-and-bust cycle, and lay out a few concrete ideas for how to increase and stabilize that funding in a way that also draws in private capital.

It's a smart, sensible primer; you should read it.

For my part, I hope it's a sign that the pointless bile of the innovation versus deployment argument is receding. It remains absolutely true that climate change is urgent and that every tool in the toolbox needs to be immediately deployed. It also remains absolutely true that climate change is an almost unfathomably large problem for which we need cheaper, better technology solutions. (Whether or not current technology is capable of doing the job, it would be nice to have better technology anyway. That's what "better" means.)

Insofar as the problem is limited resources devoted to climate change mitigation, the solution isn't to set two key strategies against each other. It's to increase the pool of resources devoted to climate change mitigation, which remains tragically small relative to the scale of the problem.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays