Building the Energy Innovation Consensus
How Innovation Became the Overarching Goal of Global Climate Talks
I have a new piece at Zócalo Public Square on the Paris climate negotiations and energy innovation. It's a riff on these two very different assessments of the climate challenge from Al Gore and Barack Obama.
Gore: “We have everything we need now to respond to the challenge of global warming … we have all the technologies we need.”
Obama: "The truth is if we adapt existing technologies and make them cheaper and faster and more readily available—if we improve energy efficiency—we’re still only going to get part of the way there and there’s still going to be a big gap to fill."
As I say in the piece, Obama's statement would have been unthinkable for a liberal world leader a decade ago:
With all of the talk of cheap solar, Tesla Roadsters, and nuclear startups, it might be easy to miss the massive shift that has taken place in the climate conversation. But make no mistake: A decade ago, climate change was seen far more as a moral and political problem than a technological one. Obama’s framing of the problem sits in stark contrast to Gore’s, and points the way to a new, more constructive era of climate politics.
Today, of course, we have Obama, Bill Gates, and others making energy innovation the toast of Paris, with the launch of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition and Mission Innovation.
My piece traces some of the history that led to today's energy innovation consensus. Here's some more:
- Human Choice and Climate Change, an indispensable four-volume work edited by Steve Rayner and Elizabeth Malone that got this right way back in the 1990s.
- Martin Hoffert, Ken Caldeira, and dozens of other energy and climate scholars who emphasized the need for technological innovation in 1998 and 2002.
- Richard Smalley, Nate Lewis, and others who illustrated just how big the decarbonization challenge -- or "terawatt challenge" is.
- One of the best titled papers ever, "The Wrong Trousers," on why the original UNFCCC was poorly suited to deal with climate change (by Steve Rayner and Gwyn Prins).
- Kelly Sims Gallagher, Greg Nemet, Arnulf Grübler, Charlie Wilson, John Holdren, Laura Kuhl, David Victor, Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Richard Lester, David Hart, Bill Bonvillian, Frank Laird, Jane Long, John Alic, and many, many others who have been studying the complex "energy technology innovation system" for years.
- Isabel Galiana and Christopher Green's groundbreaking suggestion that the best use of carbon pricing might be to raise funds for energy innovation investments.
- Roger Pielke, Jr. and Dan Sarewitz's vigiliant insistence that climate policy be pragmatic.
- Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, Jeff Navin, Teryn Norris, and Aden Van Noppen's introduction of the timeless and essential imperative: "Make clean energy cheap."
- A whole bunch of people put energy innovation on the map in Washington: Rob Atkinson, Matthew Hourihan, Matt Stepp, and Megan Nicholson at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Josh Freed and others at Third Way. Nate Gorence, Sasha Mackler, Jane Flegal, and Jason Burwen at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Mark Muro at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. Steve Hayward at the American Enterprise Institute. Letha Tawney at the World Resources Institute. Cai Steger at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Armond Cohen at the Clean Air Task Force. Sam Thernstrom at the Energy Innovation Reform Project.
- My esrtwhile and enduring colleaugues at the Breakthrough Institute -- Devon Swezey, Sara Mansur, Mark Caine, Jessica Lovering, Loren King, Max Luke, Yael Borofsky, Arthur Yip, and many others -- have been some of the sharpest and committed analysts I've come across.
- Jesse Jenkins, formerly of the Breakthrough Institute and at MIT, gets his own bullet point for being my first boss after college, and of course one of the the world's leading advocates and experts on energy innovation.
- Mariana Mazzucato whose work on the role of government in innovation has led to great writing on energy innovation in particular.
- David King, John Browne, Richard Layard, Gus O’Donnell, Martin Rees, Nicholas Stern, Adair Turner, who have led the charge on energy innovation in the United Kingdom.
- Steven Chu and Ernie Moniz, who made energy innovation a priority at the Department of Energy.
So much of this work was supported initially and consistently by the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Pritzker Innovation Fund, who were jointed by other foundations, investors, and political leaders over the years.
The most important truth about climate action is that we have many technologies today that can accelerate decarbonization, but the path from here to a high-energy, zero-carbon planet will require new and improved technologies as well. "Deployment" and "innovation," as the dumb discourse has called them, are both required. Thanks to the experts listed above, and countless others, that truth is now the overarching mission of the UNFCCC.
Image credit: AP Images