Last week’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was bad news from top to bottom. Dangerous planetary warming is underway, it’s happening faster than scientists predicted, and time is running out to stop it.
The problem seems so intractable, the challenges of addressing it so monumental, as to defy solving. But the history of technology offers reasons for optimism. Major technological transformations can occur over 10 to 30 years. That’s why the time lost since 1992, when governments first signed a landmark climate treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is so distressing. If we had set to work then, as President George H.W. Bush promised to do by taking “concrete steps” to protect ourselves from disruptive climate change, we could have transformed our energy systems by now and significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
We can still do this. According to the new report, emissions from fossil fuels must be phased out by 2050, so there is still time to get this job done. But here’s the catch: None of the major technological transformations of the 19th and 20th centuries were the product of the private sector acting alone and responding only to the market. Railroads, radio, telegraph, telephone, electricity and the internet were all the result of public-private partnerships. None was delivered by the “invisible hand” of the marketplace. All involved significant interventions by the visible hand of government.
What does this mean for us? Right now, government is widely seen as inefficient and ineffective, and our needs are thought to be best addressed by the private sector, through entrepreneurship, venture capital and Silicon Valley-style “disruption.” But unless we acknowledge the need for a substantial government role, we are going to be stuck, because change driven solely by the marketplace is unlikely to suffice.
Some might object that our current challenge is vastly different from those met by past technological changes, because we’re not just talking about a thing, like a radio or cellphone, but about changing our entire energy system. But these earlier transformations involved systems, too. Just as energy technology isn’t one thing, neither were the railroads, radio, electricity or the internet. Those systems all involved many parts, including federal, state and local policies to support them (the land grants that made the railroads possible, for instance, or role of the Federal Trade Commission in licensing radio and television stations).
What makes large-scale technological change challenging is the integration of all of those parts. Electricity wasn’t just a matter of turbines, or even turbines, power lines and transformers. Financing and regulation were also required. After electricity was introduced to the urban marketplace, the biggest obstacle to its expanded use was profitability. The private sector was able to make money bringing electricity to densely populated cities like New York, St. Louis and Chicago, but it took federal intervention, under the 1936 Rural Electrification Act, to bring it to rural communities across America.
And even then, uptake was not immediate. Rural electrification boosters insisted that hard-working farmers urgently needed electricity, but initial demand was less than expected. The Tennessee Valley Authority wanted to cut rates to drive up demand. But private utilities opposed this, worrying that low rates would threaten their financing, and the T.V.A. settled on an appliance subsidy to drive increased household consumption. Demand had to be built.
The internet was created by scientists funded by the federal government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. Al Gore didn’t build it, but he did sponsor the 1991 legislation that made it public, which laid the foundation for the World Wide Web, Silicon Valley, smartphones and our information-driven society.
We might also imagine that earlier technologies were easier to develop because they offered immediate benefits for consumers and quick profits for business. It certainly looks that way in hindsight, because those benefits are now thoroughly integrated into our lives. But it’s not so. The historian Richard White at Stanford has shown that railroads offered almost no immediate benefit to anyone except the railroad barons, because they were built far ahead of demand, and often into places where white settlers had no interest in going. When radio was first invented, no one could figure out why any ordinary person would buy one, so programming had to be invented, which meant sponsors had to be found, which in turn contributed to the rise of modern mass media advertising.
Demand for new technologies is rarely entirely spontaneous. If people have been living without something, it’s not always obvious to them why they now need it. They are likely to resist being told that they must spend money or endure inconvenience to change. In most cases, demand has to be developed and nurtured. A case for change has to be made, supported by public policy. The fact that many of these technological revolutions took hold in a generation’s time is partly because young people were quicker to adopt these new technologies than their elders.
But government support was essential for their success. Proof of this can be found in states that have implemented policies to stimulate the development of renewable-energy technologies and drive down greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, the nine states in the northeastern Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a market-based effort to reduce power plant emissions, have cut them by a whopping 39 percent since 2009. (One of us installed solar power in our home under this plan.) In California, renewable electricity has increased to about 30 percent from about 11 percent since a law was passed in 2006 requiring nearly all sectors of the economy to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
These state initiatives are important steps, but they are not enough. In the northeast, some of the emissions gains have been offset by importing power from states outside the compact and will be further undermined if the federal government approves new coal mining on public lands. And the White House is still in denial about the reality of climate change, as is a large part of Congress. Without policies to phase out fossil fuels, the increase in renewable-energy technologies might merely serve to increase our total energy supply without eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. Coal use in the United States has been decreasing, but under current policies that could easily change.
Some think that if we focus on technology, we can somehow avoid the messiness of politics and partisanship. But we won’t get the energy technologies we need and the systems to make them work in the time we need them if we don’t have the government policies to make them a reality.
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