As we barrel towards December, here is a strategic exercise for your consideration next time you are engaged in serious discussion. In the November issue of the Atlantic Magazine, Venkatesh Rao and Bill Gates outline the challenges facing us at this moment in history and at COP21, which includes the following problem:
“Even if you say [the COP21 commitments] will all be achieved—they fall dramatically short of the reductions required to reduce CO2 emissions enough to prevent a scenario where global temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius. I mean, these commitments won’t even be a third of what you need.”
Gates proposes a solution offering what Rao calls a “Climate Change War” employing forceful regulation and massive R&D subsidies to innovate our way to an effective assortment of climate change solutions.
Rao argues that previous successes like the Manhattan project and space exploration are not comparable, because the objective at those times was a single focus. Climate change — unless we turn our sights towards developing a massive carbon eating machine — will require a broad range of solutions.
Despite my own excitement about COP21, I must confess I am not optimistic. Even given the growing worldwide recognition that our climate is about to take – or has already taken – an irreversible turn, I don’t see our respective nations being able to enforce those commitments. This expectation (I don’t want to say “belief” because I’m an optimist) has its roots in our own hyper focus on business and short-term profit. Hillary Clinton just used an illustrative term in the recent debate: “quarterly capitalism.”
Yet these industries, or in many cases, oligarchies — all of whom have vested interests in the status quo and avoiding the risk represented by organizational change — must play an important role in helping us shift gears towards more sustainability, including those companies in fossil fuels, water, chemicals, materials, pharmaceuticals, and many others.
So here are some thoughts to discuss this weekend, from both pieces. Try these as conversation starters at your next party or gathering.
- Rather than trusting market forces (and luck) to come up with the right solutions, can strong regulation combined with unprecedented energy R&D investment help us achieve our goals?
- Can we invent our way out of climate change effects, driving innovation “at an unnaturally high pace,”or must it be accompanied by reductions in energy and materials use?
- Is it true that no single energy technology or no single non-energy technology can be an overall solution?
- If R&D investment in energy is low historically because the return for the individual inventor is low compared with medicine or digital R&D, how can we motivate such investment in the future?
- If we make a concerted effort to create strong policies and regulations and set aside money for technology subsidies, will business start gaming the system to circumvent the restrictions the way Volkwagen did? Or will the majority of business see this as a legitimate opportunity?
- If emissions targets continue to remain out of reach, some growth must be temporarily sacrificed. Are we willing as a society willing to consider this as a strict austerity program, the kind that used to be associated with wartime economies?
- If we ask a developing nation energy to cut energy use, how do you achieve that if it means depriving a child of a light by which to study at night?
- This is less a technology revolution than a technocratic one. Can we achieve the complex levels of bureaucratic cooperation needed to achieve the necessary outcomes? Can we streamline bureaucracy to make it easier to achieve our goals the way we tried to do with Homeland Security?
- Should private investors foot the bill for at least some of the technology development? Gates himself has promised $2 billion.
- What will the criteria be for distinguishing real technology solutions from “false” solutions? For example, EVs are great for reducing local smog, but if your power source is a coal plant you are increasing your carbon emissions.
Happy thinking and happy weekend.