State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Renewable Energy With or Without Climate Change

Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen at the Huffington Post.

The new administration in Washington is dominated by fossil fuel interests and has resumed the mantra of “Drill, baby, drill!” Deep sea drilling, mining in protected and sometimes fragile environments, mountaintop removal, fracking and massive pipeline projects are all back on the table. It’s America first, fast and fossil-fueled. Meanwhile, Germany goes solar, China is investing major resources in renewable energy, and homeowners all over America are saving big money with rooftop solar arrays.

Burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment. Extracting it, shipping it and burning it all damage the planet. Since almost all human activity damages the planet though, the question is, how much? How irreversible? And can we achieve the same ends with less damage? This last question is one of the arguments for renewable energy. Our economic life is built on energy. It has made human labor less important, human brainpower more important, and made it possible for us to live lives our great-grandparents could not have imagined. The energy use is not going away; most people like the way they live. But our use of energy needs to be made more efficient and less destructive.

Even without environmental destruction such as ecosystem damage and climate change, renewable energy is clearly the next phase of human technological evolution. Just as we went from human-pulled carts to animal labor and from animals to fossil fuels, the next step is electric vehicles powered by renewable energy stored in high-tech batteries.

Part of the argument for renewables is price. Even without damaging the environment, and even though the technology of fossil fuel extraction is advancing rapidly, fossil fuels are finite. That means over time they become less plentiful. That time may or may not come soon, but it will come. Demand will continue to rise, but at some point supply will drop and prices will soar. The technology of extracting and storing energy from the sun will become cheaper over time. We have already seen this with computers and cell phones. The price of energy from the sun remains zero, and human ingenuity and the advance of technology is inevitable. Someone soon is going to solve the problem of generating and storing renewable energy. If done correctly, the leader of that effort will be the Bill Gates or Steve Jobs of the next generation.

The nation that develops renewable energy that is cheaper than and as reliable as fossil fuels will dominate the world economy. Reducing climate change and air pollution is a beneficial byproduct of this technology, but cheaper and more reliable energy is the main outcome. In the past century, America’s research universities and national laboratories, funded by the federal government and often by the military, have been an engine of technological innovation: transistors, semi-conductors, satellite communications, mini computers, GPS, the internet… The list is virtually endless.

America’s scientific research dominates because it is competitive but collaborative, creative, free, peer-reviewed, and because our immigration policy and quality of life has always allowed us to recruit the best scientists from all over the world. Every top science department in this country is global by birth. We need to maintain this research capability for our own sake and for the world’s. Other nations may have education systems that test better, but American education and lifestyles promote creativity and innovation.

Today, some of our best minds are working on energy: nanotechnology applied to solar cells and batteries, wind energy, geothermal, carbon capture and storage, and innovations hard to explain to nonscientists like me. This research is largely funded by the federal government, and its defunding would be an act of national economic suicide. It also requires recruitment and collaboration from nations all over the world. An “America First” approach is self-defeating here. The benefits of these new technologies will not be “shared” or given away, but sold by companies like Apple, Microsoft and Tesla—or at least the next decade’s versions of these companies.

It is unfortunate, outdated and a little idiotic to allow energy policy to be dominated by the fossil fuel industry. It’s an industry with a fabulous present and a declining future. It’s not going away anytime soon, but then again, Kodak thought that people would always want to print all their photos; AT&T used to run the telegraphs; IBM stopped making laptop computers. Technology marches on, and companies, even great ones, are often bought, sold, transformed or destroyed.

Climate change requires renewable energy. But so do does an expanding economy highly dependent on inexpensive, reliable energy. Technological innovation and globalization has allowed America’s economy to grow while pollution is reduced. The damage from fossil fuels is global, and so the urgency of its replacement should be apparent. But since it is clearly not apparent in our Congress, there remains a good argument for making our energy system renewable, decentralized, computer-controlled and updated for the 21st century. We need energy too much to leave it in the hands of companies that are more concerned with protecting their sunk costs than in updating our outmoded energy system.

To update our energy system, we need to fund more basic and applied energy research. This is a difficult time for America’s research universities, as scientists fear that the federal grant support they compete for will either shrink or disappear. Science spending is a tiny proportion of the federal budget, but it has enormous multiplier effects throughout the economy. Students are trained to conduct research. Knowledge is developed that in many cases will eventually be commercialized. The benefits dramatically outweigh the costs. And the federal role cannot be replaced by companies focused on quick results or even private philanthropy. Even the largest private foundations in the world cannot reach the funding scale of the U.S. federal government. Better knowledge of the causes of climate change, better understanding of climate impacts and adaptation strategies, and the basic science that will lead to renewable energy breakthroughs all require federal funding.

In a political world where facts themselves have become open to dispute, peer-reviewed, competitive science holds out the hope of retaining and advancing the scientific base for economic development. Virtually all of the economic growth America has enjoyed over the past two centuries has been the direct result of technological innovation. Much of that innovation takes place in businesses that find ways to monetize the new knowledge and technologies that are developed in government-funded laboratories. The relationship between university and national lab basic research and commercial innovation is well known. Cutting that funding would be foolish.

If America sacrifices its scientific leadership and institutions because of the political views of scientists or out of an anti-intellectual bias, our ability to compete in the technological, global, brain-based economy will be impaired. Coupled with limits on immigration, defunding science will virtually guarantee that some other nation or nations will fill the vacuum we will leave behind. An America without well-funded, well-functioning research universities is a nation in decline.

Climate change is a test of the vibrancy of that science establishment. Will we continue to learn more about climate impacts and methods of adaptation built on risk assessments and impact models? Will we develop and implement the technologies needed to maintain economic growth while reducing greenhouse gases? In the past, we were able to take on these grand challenges, from polio and cancer treatment to building a global communications network.

While renewable energy will go a long way to addressing the climate change issue, its development does not require a concern for climate change. The argument for renewable energy is that it is the logical next phase of technological development. It is being held back in this country by fossil fuel subsidies, propaganda and politics. That appears to have accelerated under our new president. But looking back to old industries and old energy technologies for economic growth is a losing strategy. Looking forward to a new, cleaner and sustainable energy system is a much better idea, no matter what you think about climate models and climate science.


Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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