The climate crisis is so complex and so intertwined with human society that it is simply not amenable to an overarching quick fix solution
By Jonathan Koomey
Profits are good
A powerful lesson from both evolution and business is that self-replicating activities have to be rewarding. If we’re to create a low pollution economy, we’ll need to make people’s lives better in the bargain, offering new technologies that are simply better than what they replace. New products can’t just be less polluting, they have to be fun, exciting, and profitable for business to produce.
Many in the environmental community do not yet understand this lesson and have an antipathy towards business that is at best counterproductive (I won’t name names, but you know who you are). And business folks often caricature environmentalists as crazy tree huggers or worse (I won’t name names here either, but you also know who you are).
In fact, both groups need each other. Business needs environmentalists to alert them when they stray too far towards activities that are bad for their customers and the society as a whole. And environmentalists need business if they ever hope to have the wide acceptance of technologies, ideas and practices essential for building a sustainable world.
If we subvert all environmental concerns to promote economic growth, we will soon undermine the environmental foundations of that growth, making catastrophic disruption of human society increasingly likely. If, on the other hand, we resort to overly restrictive anti-pollution laws that stifle innovation, the result will be the opposite of what environmentalists intend — a backlash against those regulations and a halt to progress in reducing emissions.
The world can afford neither of these outcomes. Instead, we need to find paths in between these two extremes that result in a smooth transition to a low pollution world. And that’s what I hope you, the entrepreneur, can help us do. It’s my job to help you do that as effectively as I can.
As an aside, I’ll mention that I don’t think all regulations fall into the “overly restrictive” category. Those banning lead in children’s toys, for example, are perfectly appropriate.
And as long as the criteria used to design the regulations are based on performance rather than being overly prescriptive, then they are probably OK. An efficiency regulation for refrigerators that mandates a certain efficiency level would pass this test, but one that mandated a certain model of fridge compressor probably couldn’t.
It’s Sputnik, not Apollo
I talked with Stephen Strauss, a science journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in September 2009. He told me about a conference he had recently attended about space-based solar power systems, which are orbiting satellites that collect solar power from massive arrays of photovoltaic cells and then beam it to earth.
“Why are so many people focused on this exotic and very expensive technology?” he wondered. I pondered this for a moment. This option couldn’t really be ready to make a significant difference in global power production for at least a decade, probably longer, and would by the advocate’s own studies cost ten times as much as conventional power sources.
It occurred to me that the people arguing for this option are yearning for a simple, technically elegant, large-scale fix to the climate problem. The reasoning goes something like this:
“If only there were some kind of Manhattan project (or Apollo project) where we could invest a lot of money, then we could fix this big problem without struggling with difficult social and institutional problems.”
It’s the same impulse that leads people to advocate geoengineering and other exotic climate “solutions”.
Unfortunately, the climate crisis is so complex and so intertwined with human society that it is simply not amenable to an overarching quick fix solution. We’ll need coordination and innovation on an unprecedented scale, and significant changes in virtually every part of the economy.
So we don’t need another Manhattan project, we need something more akin to the broad societal mobilization in the US after the USSR launched Sputnik, with massive funding increases for science and engineering education as well as for research and development efforts of all types.
Fail Fast And Learn
The nature of the climate problem is such that we can’t predict with precision what combination of solutions would allow us to stabilize long-term global temperatures, because many of the actions needed to achieve this goal will occur decades in the future. So it is ultimately futile to try to create an all encompassing elegant solution because we really don’t know and can’t predict how the pieces will fit together — we’ll need to try a lot of options, fail fast, and learn quickly. This is why calls for a new Apollo project will fail to bring the rate and scope of change we need, even if significant resources were made available for that effort.
Instead, we need to bias our immediate technology choices to those that allow us to learn quickly what works and what doesn’t. Promising technologies that can’t make a difference for decades should be the subject of extensive R&D efforts, but the bulk of our resources should be focused on near-term emissions reductions, both because such reductions are urgent and because that experimentation will tell us which paths before us are likely to be the most promising ones.
Opportunities for business ventures abound in such an experimental environment, which is one reason why entrepreneurial focus on this issue is so critical. This approach diversifies our investments and so is less risky to implement because it relies on many smaller actions, any one of which can fail and not imperil the whole enterprise. It’s also the one that is appropriate for the evolutionary, path dependent world in which we live.
Path Dependence, Values, And Choices
When I say that the world is “path dependent” I mean that our choices now affect our options later. We choose the paths we follow, and those choices create opportunities and foreclose other possibilities, just like in day-to-day life.
If you choose to go to college you’ll have options for jobs that won’t be possible if you don’t. Same for grad school. And if you choose to start a business instead of pursuing further education, you’ll have other options that won’t be available to academics, because your experience and knowledge will be different than theirs.
The funny thing about choices, though, is that they inevitably involve values. We get to envision the world we want to create, but to imagine that world requires answering questions like “how we want our lives to be?” and “what kind of world do we want?”
So creating a low carbon world isn’t just a technical question, although many folks mistakenly think it is.
Those in business usually don’t make that mistake, because successfully selling products means you know something about how your customers want their lives to be. The situation is a bit more complicated when thinking about outcomes for society, but a world that’s economically vibrant but with far less pollution than today is a product that should be easy to sell. And that’s one of the motivations for me writing Cold Cash, Cool Climate in the first place.
Next: I’ll explain why I think climate is fertile soil for entrepreneurial innovation: It’s big, it’s urgent, and it’s misunderstood.
Previously: Jon Koomey explains the premise of his new book Cold Cash, Cool Climate