Sunday, December 20, 2009

The problem with Friedman's "Earth Race"

My position on global warming (assuming it exists, as I will for the rest of this post) is no secret: Agreements to reduce carbon emissions are worthless; the only solution that holds any hope at all is new technology.

So you might think that I am in agreement with Thomas Friedman, whose column in today's New York Times calls for an "Earth Race":

[T]he goal of Earth Racers is to focus on getting the U.S. Senate to pass an energy bill, with a long-term price on carbon that will really stimulate America to become the world leader in clean-tech. If we lead by example, more people will follow us by emulation than by compulsion of some U.N. treaty.

In the cold war, we had the space race: who could be the first to put a man on the moon. Only two countries competed, and there could be only one winner. Today, we need the Earth Race: who can be the first to invent the most clean technologies so men and women can live safely here on Earth.

Maybe the best thing President Obama could have done here in Copenhagen was to make clear that America intends to win that race. All he needed to do in his speech was to look China’s prime minister in the eye and say: “I am going to get our Senate to pass an energy bill with a price on carbon so we can clean your clock in clean-tech. This is my moon shot. Game on.”

Because once we get America racing China, China racing Europe, Europe racing Japan, Japan racing Brazil, we can quickly move down the innovation-manufacturing curve and shrink the cost of electric cars, batteries, solar and wind so these are no longer luxury products for the wealthy nations but commodity items the third world can use and even produce.

And you would be wrong.

The first problem is with the comparison of the "Earth Race" to the space race. In the space race, the two nations competing against one another--the US and the USSR--were already competing against one another, with the world more or less divided between them. Because of that, the technological benefits offered were almost meaningless: the real benefit sought was the prestige that came with trumping their only rival.

There's nothing like that in the "Earth Race." There's no one for the US to seek to trump, because for the last 20 years, we've been alone on top of the world. (Even now, the closest thing we have to a "rival" is Al Qaeda, which isn't a nation at all.)

So, with that in mind, we come to the second problem: Just what are we racing for? Friedman helpfully pointed it out before:

Because once we get America racing China, China racing Europe, Europe racing Japan, Japan racing Brazil, we can quickly move down the innovation-manufacturing curve and shrink the cost of electric cars, batteries, solar and wind so these are no longer luxury products for the wealthy nations but commodity items the third world can use and even produce.
That's the prize--the chance to make our potential customers in this regard self-sufficient, and thus render our own economic role in the process obsolete.

And Friedman really thinks China and Europe and Japan are going to kick down the doors to get in on this?

But even that's not the biggest problem with the concept of the "Earth Race." That honor goes to Friedman's proposal for getting the ball rolling: "a long-term price on carbon," clearly operating on the concept of necessity being the mother of invention.

Where do we even start with this? To begin with, it's unilateral, so its most likely effect will be to cripple those very US businesses that need to invest in R&D (unless equivalent tariffs are also which case, we're dealing with a full-blown trade war, instead).

But it's also a function of the erroneous belief that all that's needed to solve the problem is a little bit of willpower and a lot of money. The hard truth is this: The technology needed to solve the global warming problem does not yet exist. It's not just a matter of improving existing technologies. It's simply not economically feasible for developing countries to use them--not when the alternative is coal, available in abundant supply, at $.03/kWh.

When it comes to finding that new technology, some scientist or researcher still has to come up with the brilliant idea, or make the key breakthrough--and throwing money at them won't make them make the breakthrough any sooner. It takes time.

Friedman's "Earth Race" isn't a race against other countries. It's a race against time.

It's jumping off a cliff, and then racing to see if you'll manage to sprout wings before you hit the bottom.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

People: Problem vs. Solution, Hope vs. Despair

RealClearPolitics was unusually astute in pairing off two op-eds on the Copenhagen summit. Both address the issue of global warming (both from the point of view of a believer). Both further focus on the nature of humanity, as it relates to what both regard as a crisis.

The conclusions the two reach, though, could not be more different.

First, writing in the Guardian, George Monbiot:

The meeting at Copenhagen confronts us with our primal tragedy. We are the universal ape, equipped with the ingenuity and aggression to bring down prey much larger than itself, break into new lands, roar its defiance of natural constraints. Now we find ourselves hedged in by the consequences of our nature, living meekly on this crowded planet for fear of provoking or damaging others. We have the hearts of lions and live the lives of clerks.

The summit's premise is that the age of heroism is over. We have entered the age of accommodation. No longer may we live without restraint. No longer may we swing our fists regardless of whose nose might be in the way. In everything we do we must now be mindful of the lives of others, cautious, constrained, meticulous. We may no longer live in the moment, as if there were no tomorrow.


Humanity is no longer split between conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and progressives, though both sides are informed by the older politics. Today the battle lines are drawn between expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments and those who believe that we must live within limits.

Monbiot, it's easy to see, is on the side of the "restrainers." (Later in the essay, in fact, he goes on to advocate a complete moratorium on prospecting for new reserves of fossil fuels, which is essentially a call for complete economic suicide.)

Anne Applebaum, on the other hand, is most emphatically not:

The assumption behind this calculation is profoundly negative: that human beings are nothing more than machines for the production of carbon dioxide. And if we take that assumption seriously, a whole lot of other things look different, too. Weapons of mass destruction should perhaps be reconsidered, along with the flu virus: By reducing the population, they might also reduce emissions. Perhaps they should be encouraged?

Coupling all that with a firm conviction that the end of the world is nigh, you can see how homework is rendered pointless. As for hopes for the future and faith in humanity -- forget about it. But while we're at it, we might as well forget about reinventing our energy sources, too.

For while it's true that humans are often greedy, stupid and destructive, it's also true that we got to where we are at least partly thanks to human creativity, ingenuity and talent. Electricity is a miracle, an invention that has brought light and life to millions. Modern communication and transportation systems are no less extraordinary, helping to create economic growth in places where poverty and misery were the norm for centuries.

All of them depend on fossil fuels, but they don't have to: A profound change in the nature of human energy consumption is possible -- thanks to the entrepreneurship that created the Internet, the compassion that lies behind the advances in modern medicine and the scientific reasoning that sent men into space. As for nihilism and hatred of humankind, it teaches us nothing, except to give up. And we shouldn't be passing that on to our children either.

I have long argued that the only possible way out of this problem--if it is indeed a problem--is to go forward. It's good to see that at least a few people are following the only sane approach to combating global warming, rather than heeding China's calls for a global suicide pact.