Why solving climate change will be like mobilizing for war

Venkatesh Rao writes: If scientists are right, and there is no reason to think they aren’t, averting climate change will require such large-scale, rapid action, that no single energy technology, new or emerging, could be the solution. Neither could any single non-energy technology, such as video-conferencing as a substitute for travel, solve the problem on its own.

There is always a possibility that a single cheap and effective solution will emerge, rendering expensive interventions moot, but few climate experts are willing to trust the future to that unlikely prospect.

The challenge therefore, is one of rapid, concerted deployment of a portfolio of emerging and mature energy and non-energy technologies. This means accepting a certain level of attendant risks. The Volkwagen emissions scandal illustrates these risks well: Aggressive forcing, through EU policy instruments, of the adoption of diesel engines (which are better suited to reducing emissions) created incentives that led to sophisticated gaming.

The Volkswagen scandal won’t be the last or the worst. Unlike many of the other objections put forth by climate skeptics, the objection that managing moral hazards at a planetary scale might prove impossible is a solid one.

Assuming we do manage to significantly accelerate deployment without cancerous levels of corporatist corruption, if emissions targets still remain out of reach, some growth must be temporarily sacrificed. At the same time, investment across the portfolio of energy technologies will need to continue.

In other words, we are contemplating the sorts of austerities associated with wartime economies. For ordinary Americans, austerities might include an end to expansive suburban lifestyles and budget air travel, and an accelerated return to high-density urban living and train travel. For businesses, this might mean rethinking entire supply chains, as high-emissions sectors become unviable under new emissions regimes.

What [Bill] Gates and others are advocating for is not so much a technological revolution as a technocratic one. One for which there is no successful peacetime precedent. Which is not to say, of course, that it cannot work. There is always a first time for every new level of complexity and scale in human cooperation. But it’s sobering to look back at the (partial) precedents we do have.

Of the previous six energy revolutions of comparable magnitude — wind, water, coal, oil, electricity, and nuclear — only nuclear power had anywhere near the same level of early-stage technocratic shaping that we are contemplating. Among technological revolutions outside the energy sector, only space exploration, nuclear-weapons technology, and computing technology have had similar levels of bureaucratic direction.

None of these are true comparables, however, for one critical reason. In each historical case, the revolution was highly focused on a single core technology rather than a broad portfolio of technologies, and a managed transition of infrastructure at civilization scale. [Continue reading…]

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