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Climate Change: Technology Is the Solution

If humankind is to be saved from the storms, floods, and droughts that a rise in the global temperature threatens, it is engineers, not politicians, who will save it.

Michael Mandelbaum

With the Biden presidency, climate change has returned to the top of the American public policy agenda. The new administration has re-entered the Paris climate accord, a non-binding international agreement among 196 parties from which its predecessor withdrew. The signatories have pledged to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, the increasing accumulation of which in the earth’s atmosphere raises the global temperature, with potential geophysical, social, and economic consequences harmful to human societies. The President has pledged that the United States will cut its 2005 emissions total in half by 2030. He has promised legislation for that purpose and his $2 trillion infrastructure program includes spending to achieve it. He has appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry to be a special climate czar. The politics of climate change, in short, have changed dramatically.

The new administration has good reason for this emphasis. Climate change is a real and serious problem. The “greenhouse effect,” by which greenhouse gases heat the planet, has been known for more than a century. Without it, in fact, the earth would be too cold for human habitation. The precise effects of the ongoing increase in the stock of these gases and the global warming it produces cannot be known in advance; but effects there will certainly be, and for many—conceivably even most—people around the world they are likely to be costly, perhaps very much so.

While the political will on the part of the United States to limit greenhouse emissions is important, however, that alone will not suffice to reduce the prospective damage. For one thing, the problem is global in scope. All countries contribute to it and China, not America, leads the world in producing greenhouse gases. Moreover, neither China nor the United States nor any other country can easily reduce its output of these gases because the production of them pervades human life.

Greenhouse emissions stem not only from the world’s expanding fleet of gasoline-powered automobiles but also from the generation of electricity, the construction as well as the heating and cooling of almost every kind of building around the world, and even from the growing of food. To cease all the activities that are making the climate hotter would send human societies back to the world before the Industrial Revolution: everyday life would become, as it was for most people before the modern age and as the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it in another context, “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Solving the climate problem therefore means finding methods of sustaining the major features of 21st-century existence in ways less damaging to the environment. It means, in particular, finding substitutes for the major source of greenhouse gases, carbon-based fossil fuels. That, in turn, requires new technology on a very large scale. It is to technology and not—or not only—to politics that the world must look to prevent climate change. If humankind is to be saved from the storms, floods, and droughts that a rise in the global temperature threatens, it is engineers, not politicians, who will save it.

This is the message that emerges from How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need by Bill Gates, the cofounder of the computer software giant Microsoft and now a leading philanthropist. The book’s subtitle captures its theme. Gates provides a useful inventory of the technologies required to reduce the volume of greenhouse gases the world produces while maintaining what people everywhere desire: a rising standard of living. Some of these technologies already exist but need further development and broader distribution; others have yet to be invented.

Probably the best-known climate-friendly invention is the electric car. General Motors has promised to build only zero-emission vehicles by 2035, almost all of them fueled by electricity. Yet electric cars can make only a modest contribution to a worldwide reduction in greenhouse gases. While they do not use “dirty” fossil fuels directly, the electricity on which they run may come from the burning of such fuels, particularly coal, the dirtiest of all. Moreover, in order to use electricity, vehicles bigger than cars, and especially large ships, would need batteries far too large and numerous to be practical. Furthermore, transportation accounts for only 16 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, so even the development of batteries able to power the long ocean voyages of the largest ships would not spare the world the effects of climate change.

Gates gives the highest priority to finding clean ways to generate electricity. While solar and wind power have made impressive strides in the past decade, even combined they will at best supply only a modest fraction of the world’s electrical needs. For this reason, and unpopular though the prospect is, a substantial expansion of nuclear power will be needed. Gates has invested in efforts to make nuclear power plants safer as well as resistant to the theft of material that could be used to make nuclear weapons.

Limiting the rise in the earth’s temperature will also require inventions not usually associated with climate change: finding cleaner ways to make the ubiquitous building material concrete, for example, and producing fertilizers that do not, as the most widely used ones now do, add to the volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Lurking in the background of the debate about climate change, finally, is the idea of using technology directly to lower the planet’s temperature. Geoengineering, the term for such an enterprise, would employ untried techniques, with not entirely predictable consequences. Even as an untried idea it is controversial. If, however, the global temperature rises rapidly and the negative effects are severe, governments may become serious about attempting it.

The problem of preventing climate change, and the need for innovations to make this possible, are all the more urgent because, as the population of the planet grows and its inhabitants become richer, greenhouse gas-producing activities will expand rapidly. The problem is all the more difficult because, in order to diffuse widely, whatever new and cleaner methods of conducting these activities become available will have to cost no more, or not much more, than the methods employed now, especially the use of fossil fuels. Gates terms the additional expense of carrying out, with current technology, the world’s business in ways that limit the emission of greenhouse gases the “green premium.” For most of the relevant activities, that premium is discouragingly high.

To be sure, technological innovation will not, in and of itself, solve the problem of climate change. Societies will need incentives to develop and use alternate fuels. The most effective such incentive involves placing a price on the source of most greenhouse gas, carbon-based fuels, in the form of a tax on the carbon content of all products and processes that use it. The idea has gained the support of many economists of both liberal and conservative political persuasions, and even some energy companies have endorsed it; but it remains unpopular in the wider public and the Biden Administration has not included a carbon tax in its climate-change initiatives.

Appropriate incentives can help to elicit new technology, but only in conjunction with research and development. Today the private sector, according to Gates, “systematically underinvests in R&D on energy,” spending just 0.3 percent of revenue on it. By comparison, the electronics and pharmaceutical industries spend 10 and 13 percent, respectively, on research and development in their fields. Private investment in green technology rose in the first decade of this century but yielded disappointing results and subsequently declined sharply. Recently such investment has begun to pick up again. Still, government intervention will be necessary here, both to increase the number of scientists and engineers working in the relevant fields and to support technologies that show promise but that, for a variety of reasons, private capital will be reluctant to subsidize. No policy the Biden Administration could adopt would do more to fight climate change than to increase public investment in this area.

Bill Gates believes that the world must aim to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions over the next several decades. It testifies to the thoroughness of his analysis that a reader of How to Avoid a Climate Disaster can reasonably conclude that such a goal is unrealistically ambitious. Mitigating the rise in global temperatures is not, however, an either-or proposition. Any appreciable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will lessen the impact of climate change.

Moreover, while the task is global in scope, America is well placed to play a leading role in addressing it because the United States has historically led the world in devising, producing, and using new technology. This particular challenge, therefore, plays to American strengths. From the 18th century this country has produced an impressive stream of inspired tinkerers who have generated major innovations—Thomas Edison being perhaps the most famous—as well as shrewd entrepreneurs who found ways to incorporate innovations into economically lucrative products, from Henry Ford to Bill Gates himself. The United States has also carried out successful, large-scale, collective efforts at innovation, from the Manhattan Project during World War II to the Human Genome Project in more recent decades. Invention and innovation of this kind is one of the most significant contributions the United States has made to human civilization. The world needs these now more than ever.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and author of The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth (2019).

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