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 imposed...in 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.

--Shack

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coffe said...
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