The article “How to Change the Global Energy Conversation” in today’s Wall Street Journal got some things right, and a whole lot wrong. The two authors from the Breakthrough Institute in California argue that innovation and adaptation should be the focal points of how we deal with global warming.
Absolutely. Cycles of global warming and cooling have been with us since the beginning of the earth. The climate is not static, and trying to make it that way is bound to fail. Instead of getting hysterical over climate change, we should find ways to adapt to new circumstances. Especially in light of the immense uncertainty over the pace and magnitude of climate change, our best bet is on resilience. As Kenneth Green at the American Enterprise Institute states, “Resilient approaches maximize our ability to cope with risk by maintaining a dynamic, market-based, knowledge building strategy.” Innovation is the key to adapting and building resilience to the circumstances of a warmer globe.
Here is where the authors got it all wrong:
Energy that is cheap, clean and available to all should be understood as a fundamental public good and should be the central objective of climate policy. It’s the best way to align national interests with the global one, economic benefits with environmental ones and emissions reductions with adaptation.
The main thesis in their article is that government should invest more heavily into research and development of new, clean energy sources. The authors argue that private companies are under-investing in energy research because they are unable to fully appropriate the gains from new technologies and that an attempt to protect intellectual property rights is precluding private companies from sharing and collaborating on new energy research, which would accelerate innovation.
Research by M.I.T. professors Thomas Lee, Ben Ball, and Richard Tabors shows, however, that:
[.] if a technology is commercially viable, then government support is not needed; and if a technology is not commercially viable, no amount of government support will make it so.
What the authors fail to acknowledge is that research funding allocated through the political process is necessarily subject to the pressures of special interest politics, and the temptations of campaign contributions and bribes. It is a rare coincidence when political needs coincide with scientific and economic considerations. More often than not, government R&D funding is laden with pork and is a waste of taxpayer money.