We Have Enough Climate Tech. What We Need is Political Will.
DCalifornia failed to make a significant impact on climate change over a century ago. A 1990 state law required that car companies gradually start replacing their existing vehicles with electric cars (EVs) and was passed. The state reversed the decision in 2002. Part of the reason was political—car companies, aided by the Bush Administration, were fighting the state every step of the way. But the EVs of the day also weren’t very good—the industry’s best offerings could barely get 80 miles on a single charge.
We’ve come a long way since then. Today’s EVs work great, and so does the rest of the widely available tech—renewables, battery storage, heat pumps, insulation—needed to claw our way out of our climate mess. The reason for the current absence of climate action—that is, our world leaders’ stupefying, infuriating, and utterly senseless fossil fuel suicide pact—has very little to do with a need for further technological innovation. Rather, according to the most recent IPCC climate change report published this week, the blame falls more on a consistent lack of political will, financial institutions’ failure to disinvest from fossil fuels, and the enduring power of the entrenched interests dedicated to pulling every last barrel of oil and bucket of coal from the Earth.
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Technology and climate change are my main topics. For me and others tasked with reporting on our current crisis and the systems we have to solve it, it’s important to get our framing right. Though the newest, flashiest technologies still under development are interesting, they aren’t necessarily the most important. The fact of the matter, according to the world’s leading climate scientists, is that the decarbonization tools we have right now are cheap and work well. Since 2010, the price of solar power has dropped by 85%, while it is only half as costly. And at this point we simply don’t have time to wait around for technology that isn’t ready now. “We have to reach a peak no later than 2025 in our greenhouse gas emissions,” says Tom Evans, a researcher at climate think tank E3G. “All of those technologies that are speculative, that are untested and untried, they’re not going to be able to deliver in that timeframe.”
We need to get politicians and companies to rapidly scale up existing technologies in order to cut emissions immediately and stop global warming becoming uncontrollable. This is something you may not see in much public discussion about climate change. Many reporters write of new technologies, such as machines that remove carbon from the atmosphere to fix climate change. Actor Robert Downey Jr., a climate investor, makes absurd claims about how such technologies can be used to combat climate change. “just as important”As immediately scaling up existing, readily-available renewable energy solutions. Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin is adamant that green energy should be expanded while spending billions of money on unproven, controversial technology like blue hydrogen.
That’s not to say all these technologies are useless or unworthy of investment (carbon removal tech, for instance, will likely be needed to offset hard-to-decarbonize industries, like aviation). But we can’t characterize the climate crisis as a technology problem to be solved by scrappy innovators and climate VC funds if their solutions won’t be ready until long after our deadlines to cut emissions have come and gone. Such framings make it sound like it’s okay if we blow past the atmosphere’s carbon thresholds, and simply hope that technologies like carbon capture or fission energy will help us rein in the problem later—an insanely risky gamble over the fate of human civilization. These techno-fixes can also be used to distract from climate change action. Shell has funded ad campaigns to block legislation to reduce near-term carbon emissions, while supporting efforts to create new decarbonization technology.
Instead, says Jamal Raad, director of climate advocacy group Evergreen Action, we need to keep our focus on the policy realm, where, in the U.S., we’re at a make-or-break moment to ram through legislation to scale up current green technologies and cut emissions on the timescales science demands. “I understand more than anyone as someone who’s worked in politics for 15 years that it’s messy and gross,” he says. “People would like to think that there’s a way that you can skip it to solve problems. But unfortunately you cannot.”
For someone who writes on technology, it’s not necessarily fun to hear that scientific progress isn’t enough—that the world’s fate relies on politicians. We need to admit how far we have fallen in our efforts to decarbonize the planet and why leaders are unwilling or unable fight for fossil fuel interests. Engineers and scientists have created technologies that could save us. Now, we just have to be brave enough to apply them.
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