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Woke Capitalism Is Still Capitalism
Tumbrels are rattling through the streets of the internet. Over the past few years, online-led social movements have deposed gropers, exposed bullies—and, sometimes, ruined the lives of the innocent. Commentators warn of “mob justice,” while activists exult in their newfound power to change the world.Both groups are right, and wrong. Because the best way to see the firings, outings, and online denunciations grouped together as “cancel culture,” is not through a social lens, but an economic one.Take the fall of the film producer Harvey Weinstein, which seems inevitable in hindsight—everyone knew he was a sex pest! There were even jokes about it on 30 Rock! But it took The New York Times months of reporting to ready its first story for publishing; the newspaper was taking on someone with deep pockets and a history of intimidating critics into silence. Then the story went off like a hand grenade. Suddenly, the mood—and the economic incentives—shifted. People who had been afraid of Weinstein were instead afraid of being taken down alongside him.The removal of Weinstein from his company, and his subsequent conviction for rape, is a good outcome. But the mechanism it revealed is more morally ambiguous: The court of public opinion was the only forum left after workplace protections and the judicial system had failed. The writer Jon Schwarz once described the “iron law of institutions,” under which people with seniority inside an institution care more about preserving their power within the institution than they do about the power of the institution as a whole. That self-preservation instinct also operates when private companies—institutions built on maximizing shareholder value, or other capitalist principles—struggle to acclimatize to life in a world where many consumers vocally support social-justice causes. Progressive values are now a powerful branding tool.But that is, by and large, all they are. And that leads to what I call the “iron law of woke capitalism”: Brands will gravitate toward low-cost, high-noise signals as a substitute for genuine reform, to ensure their survival. (I’m not using the word woke here in a sneering, pejorative sense, but to highlight that the original definition of wokeness is incompatible with capitalism. Also, I’m not taking credit for the coinage: The writer Ross Douthat got there first.) In fact, let’s go further: Those with power inside institutions love splashy progressive gestures—solemn, monochrome social media posts deploring racism; appointing their first woman to the board; firing low-level employees who attract online fury—because they help preserve their power. Those at the top—who are disproportionately white, male, wealthy and highly educated—are not being asked to give up anything themselves.Read: [Stop firing the innocent]Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the random firings of individuals, some of whose infractions are minor, and some of whom are entirely innocent of any bad behavior. In the first group goes the graphic designer Sue Schafer, outed by The Washington Post for attending a party in ironic blackface—a tone-deaf attempt to mock Megyn Kelly for not seeing what was wrong with blackface. Schafer, a private individual, was confronted at the party over the costume, went home in tears, and apologized to the hosts the next day. When the Post ran a story naming her, she was fired. New York magazine found numerous Post reporters unwilling to defend the decision to run the story—and plenty of unease that the article seemed more interested in exonerating the Post than fighting racism. Even less understandable is the case of Niel Golightly, communications chief at the aircraft company Boeing, who stepped down over a 33-year-old article arguing that women should not serve in the military. When Barack Obama, a notably progressive president, only changed his mind on gay marriage in the 2010s, how many Americans’ views from 1987 would hold up to scrutiny by today’s standards?This mechanism is not, as it is sometimes presented, a long overdue settling of scores against by under-represented voices. It is a reflexive jerk of the knee by the powerful; a demonstration of institutions’ unwillingness to tolerate any controversy, whether those complaining are liberal or conservative. Another case where the punishment does not fit the offense is that of the police detective Florissa Fuentes, who reposted a picture from her niece taken at a Black Lives Matter protest. One of those pictured held a sign reading Who do we call when the murderer wear the badge. Another sign, according to the Times, “implied that people should shoot back at the police.” Fuentes, a 30-year-old single mother to three children, deleted the post and apologized, but was fired nonetheless.Read: [Brands have nothing real to say about racism]In the second group, the blameless, lies Emmanuel Cafferty, a truck driver who appears to have been tricked into making an “okay” symbol by a driver he cut off at a traffic light. The inevitable viral video claimed that this was a deliberate use of the symbol as a white-power gesture, and he was promptly fired. Cafferty is a working-class man in his 40s from San Diego. The loss of his job hit him hard enough that he saw a counselor. “A man can learn from making a mistake,” he told my colleague Yascha Mounk. “But what am I supposed to learn from this? It’s like I was struck by lightning.”The phrase is haunting—not being racist is not going to save you if the lightning strikes. Nor is the fact that your comments lie decades in the past, or that they have been misinterpreted by bad-faith actors, or that you didn’t make them. The ground—your life—is scorched just the same.It is strange that “cancel culture” has become a project of the left, which spent the 20th century fighting against capricious firings of “troublesome” employees. A lack of due process does not become a moral good just because you sometimes agree with its targets. We all, I hope, want to see sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination decrease. But we should be aware of the economic incentives here, particularly given the speed of social media, which can send a video viral, and see onlookers demand a response, before the basic facts have been established. Afraid of the reputational damage that can be incurred in minutes, companies are behaving in ways that range from thoughtless and uncaring to sadistic. For Cafferty’s employer, what’s one random truck driver versus the PR bump of being able to cut off a bad news cycle by saying you’ve fired your “white-supremacist employee”?Let’s look at another example of how woke capitalism operates. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, and the protests that followed, White Fragility, a 2018 book by Robin DiAngelo, returned to the top of The New York Times’s paperback-nonfiction chart. The author is white, and her book is for white people, encouraging them to think about what it’s like to be white. So the American book-buying public’s single biggest response to the Black Lives Matter movement was … to buy a book about whiteness written by a white person.This is worse than mere navel-gazing; it’s synthetic activism. It risks making readers feel full of piety and righteousness without having actually done anything. Buying a book on white fragility improves the lives of the most marginalized far less than, say, donating to a voting-rights charity or volunteering at a food bank. It’s pure hobbyism.Why is DiAngelo’s book so popular? Again, look at economics. White Fragility is a staple of formal diversity training, in universities from London to Iowa, and at publications including Britain’s right-wing Telegraph newspaper, as well as The Atlantic. The client list on DiAngelo’s website includes giant corporations such as Amazon and Unilever; nonprofits such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Hollywood Writers Guild, and the YMCA; as well as institutions and governmental bodies such as Seattle Public Schools, the City of Oakland, and the Metropolitan Council of Minneapolis.In the United States, diversity training is worth $8 billion a year, according to Iris Bohnet, a public-policy professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School. And yet, after studying programs in both the U.S. and post-conflict countries such as Rwanda, she concluded, “sadly enough, I did not find a single study that found that diversity training in fact leads to more diversity.” Part of the problem is that although those delivering them are undoubtedly well-meaning, the training programs are typically no more scientifically grounded than previous management-course favorites, such as Myers-Briggs personality classifications. “Implicit-bias tests” are controversial, and the claim that they can predict real-world behavior, never mind reduce bias, is shaky. A large-scale analysis of research in the sector found that “changes in implicit measures are possible, but those changes do not necessarily translate into changes in explicit measures or behavior.” Yet metrics-obsessed companies love these forms of training. When the British Labour leader, Keir Starmer, caused offense by referring to Black Lives Matter as a “moment” rather than a movement, he announced that he would undergo implicit-bias training. It is an approach that sees bias as a moral flaw among individuals, rather than a product of systems. It encourages personal repentance, rather than institutional reform.Bohnet suggested other methods to increase diversity, such as removing ages and photographs from job applications, and reviewing the language used for advertisements. (Men are more likely to see themselves as “assertive,” she argued.) Here is another option for big companies: Put your money into paying all junior staff enough for them to live in the big city where the company is based, without needing help from their parents. That would increase the company’s diversity. Hell, get your staff to read White Fragility on their own time and give your office cleaners a pay raise.This, however, would break the iron law of woke capitalism—better to have something you can point to and say “Aren’t we progressive?” than to think about the real problem. Diversity training offers the minimum possible disruption to your power structures: Don’t change the board; just get your existing employees to sit through a seminar.If this is a moment for power structures to be challenged, and old orthodoxies to be overturned, then understanding the difference between economic radicalism and social radicalism is vital. These could also be described as the difference between identity and class. That is not to dismiss the former: Many groups face discrimination on both measures. Women might not be hired because “Math isn’t for girls” or because an employer doesn’t want to pay for maternity leave. An employer may not see the worth of a minority applicant because he or she doesn’t speak the way the interviewer expects, or that applicant might be a second generation immigrant whose parents can’t subsidize them through several years earning less than a living wage.All this I’ve learned from feminism, where the contrast between economic and social radicalism is very apparent. Equal pay is economically radical. Hiring a female or minority CEO for the first time is socially radical. Diversity training is socially radical, at best. Providing social-housing tenants with homes not covered in flammable cladding is economically radical. Changing the name of a building at a university is socially radical; improving on its 5 percent enrollment rate for Black students—perhaps by smashing up the crazy system of legacy admissions—would be economically radical.Read: [It’s not callout culture, it’s accountability]In my book Difficult Women, I wrote that the only question I want to ask big companies who claim to be “empowering the female leaders of the future” is this one: Do you have on-site child care? You can have all the summits and power breakfasts that you want, but unless you address the real problems holding working parents back, then it’s all window dressing.Along with anti-racism and anti-sexism efforts, LGBTQ politics suffers a similar confusion between economic and social radicalism. The arrival of Pride month brings the annual argument about how it should be a “protest, not a parade.” The violence and victimization of the Stonewall riot era risks being forgotten in today’s “branded holiday,” where big banks and clothing manufacturers fly the rainbow flag to boost their corporate image. In Britain and the U.S., these corporate sponsors want a depoliticized party—a generic celebration of love and acceptance—without tough questions about their views on particular domestic laws and policies, or their involvement in countries with poor records on LGBTQ rights. Some activists in Britain have tried to get Pride marches to stop allowing the arms company BAE to be a sponsor, given its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, an explicitly homophobic and sexist state. When Amazon sponsored last year’s PinkNews Awards, the former Doctor Who screenwriter Russell T. Davies used his lifetime-achievement-award acceptance speech to tell the retailer to “pay your fucking taxes.” That’s economic radicalism.Activists regularly challenge criticisms of “cancel culture” by saying: “Come on, we’re just some people with Twitter accounts, up against governments and corporate behemoths.” But when you look at the economic incentives, almost always, the capitalist imperative is to yield to activist pressure. Just a bit. Enough to get them off your back. Companies caught in the scorching light of a social-media outcry are like politicians caught lying or cheating, who promise a “judge-led inquiry”: They want to do something, anything, to appear as if they are taking the problem seriously—until the spotlight moves on.Some defenestrations are brilliant, and long overdue. Weinstein’s removal from a position of power was undoubtedly a good thing. But the firing of Emmanuel Cafferty was not. For activists, the danger lies in the cheap sugar rush of tokenistic cancellations. Real institutional change is hard; like politics, it is the “slow boring of hard boards.” Persuading a company to toss someone overboard for PR points risks a victory that is no victory at all. The pitchforks go down, but the corporate culture remains the same. The survivors sigh in relief. The institution goes on.If you care about progressive causes, then woke capitalism is not your friend. It is actively impeding the cause, siphoning off energy, and deluding us into thinking that change is happening faster and deeper than it really is. When people talk about the “excesses of the left”—a phenomenon that blights the electoral prospects of progressive parties by alienating swing voters—in many cases they’re talking about the jumpy overreactions of corporations that aren’t left-wing at all.Remember the iron law of woke institutions: For those looking to preserve their power, it makes sense to do the minimum amount of social radicalism necessary to survive … and no economic radicalism at all. The latter is where activists need to apply their pressure.
"Mythbusters" co-host Grant Imahara dead at 49
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Formerly homeless 9-year-old chess prodigy shares inspirational story in new book
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Many technologies needed to solve the climate crisis are nowhere near ready
A painted road sign indicating an electric car charging station in Lindholmen Science Park in Gothenburg, Sweden. | Karol Serewis/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images Getting to net-zero carbon emissions will require rapid, radical innovation, a new report says. Global warming can often feel overwhelming, given its political, social, and economic complexities. From a purely engineering perspective, though, it is surprisingly simple. There is a clear goal and a bounded set of technological tools to achieve it — just the kind of problem engineers like to solve. The clear goal is net-zero global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, a target around which much of the world is coalescing in the wake of the recent IPCC report. Reaching global net-zero is necessary to stabilize the atmosphere at any temperature. Otherwise it continues warming. “The difference between one and a half degrees, two degrees, and two and a half degrees [of warming] is functionally just the amount of time you have to achieve net zero,” says Julio Friedmann, an energy researcher at the Center for Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. Failing to reach net-zero means failing to stabilize the atmosphere. The term “net-zero emissions” means that for every ton of carbon released from the geosphere into the atmosphere (through mining, drilling, and burning of fossil fuels), one ton must be returned from the atmosphere to the geosphere, either through natural means like absorption in oceans, soil, and plants, or through industrial carbon capture and sequestration. Getting to net zero means reducing emissions as much as humanly possible and burying enough carbon to account for emissions that can’t be eliminated. OCI Net zero, and then negative. Net zero is the clear goal. The tools available for achieving it are clean energy technologies. Given the time it takes for new technologies to scale up to mass-market significance, the 2050 target will almost certainly be met (if at all) with clean energy technologies that currently exist. Some of them may still be in the early stages of development, but they’re already out there somewhere. It’s a large set of tools, but a bounded set. From an engineering perspective, the central question is whether the tools available are up to the task required of them. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has recently set out to answer that question, under the rubric of its Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP) program, which this month issued its latest Clean Energy Innovation report. The (comprehensive and fascinating) report surveys the field of clean energy technology and determines where various technologies are on the development curve and where they must get to achieve net zero by 2050. It reveals a problem that is at once politically daunting and, from an engineering perspective, eminently solvable — even, or perhaps especially, in the Covid-19 era. The IEA is trying to give new technologies a chance The IEA has been criticized in the past for being too conservative in its modeling, for underestimating the rapid pace of development in cleantech and thus overestimating the cost of decarbonizing. (I covered the controversy in detail in this post.) The ETP program is in part an effort to respond to those criticisms. There are four basic stages that new technology goes through in the process of scaling up to mass-market significance. Quoting from the IEA report: Prototype: A concept is developed into a design, and then into a prototype for a new device (e.g. a furnace that produces steel with pure hydrogen instead of coal). Demonstration: The first examples of a new technology are introduced at the size of a full-scale commercial unit (e.g. a system that captures CO2 emissions from cement plants). Early adoption: At this stage, there is still a cost and performance gap with established technologies, which policy attention must address (e.g. electric and hydrogen-powered cars). Mature: As deployment progresses, the product moves into the mainstream as a common choice for new purchases (e.g. hydropower turbines). Because technology development is uncertain and difficult to predict, IEA has typically only used technologies from categories 3 and 4 in its models, which is one reason its scenarios have been seen as unduly conservative. IEA The Clean Energy Innovation report responds directly to that concern. It surveys some 400 clean energy technologies in four key areas (electrification, carbon management, hydrogen, and bioenergy), determining their stage of development. And it models what would happen if all the technologies in the early stages were rapidly accelerated to maturity. It calls this new scenario its Faster Innovation Case. The report goes into considerable detail about the impact of Covid-19 on global energy innovation. I won’t get into the details; the upshot is that the entire world is at an inflection point. As of now, the coronavirus has hit energy companies hard and slowed innovation spending. Even as the recession produces a short-term dip in emissions, it could delay longer-term decarbonization, which would only make the eventual task more difficult. But countries across the world are considering trillions of dollars in recovery and stimulus spending to salvage their economies. That presents an enormous opportunity to kickstart the cycles of building and innovation that will be necessary to hit the 2050 target. If they are smart about it, countries — especially wealthier countries like the US — can deliberately accelerate the development of early-stage clean energy technologies and get them on track to do the enormous work that will be asked of them by mid-century. Many technologies that will be needed for deep decarbonization are nowhere near ready The IEA begins by determining how ready current clean energy technologies are to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), which would reach global net-zero emissions by 2070 and stabilize global temperature rise at 1.8°C (along with meeting several other sustainable development goals). In the energy sector, IEA identifies four key approaches to decarbonization that are lagging technologically: Electrification of end uses, particularly heating and transportation; carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS); low-carbon hydrogen and hydrogen fuels; bioenergy. Within those four approaches, IEA assesses over 400 separate technologies. What is remarkable, and disheartening, is how few of them are on track to meet the SDS goals. The report does a deep dive on the component technologies in each of the four areas. Here’s how it lays out electrification: IEA As you can see on the left, many zero-carbon power generation technologies are either mature (blue) or in early adoption (green) and scaling up. But electricity infrastructure (center column) is lagging and electrification of heavy industry (middle of the right column) is practically nowhere near. Nonetheless, electrification is probably the best of the four approaches. Here’s CCUS: IEA That’s a lot of yellow and orange — almost nothing in early adoption or mature, ready for market. To see similar breakdowns of the other areas, check out the interactive dashboard IEA built to show all 400 technologies. Altogether, “around 35% of the cumulative CO2 emissions reductions needed to shift to a sustainable path come from technologies currently at the prototype or demonstration phase,” the report says. “A further 40% of the reductions rely on technologies not yet commercially deployed on a mass-market scale.” IEA As IEA notes, “this calls for urgent efforts to accelerate innovation.” All those early-stage technologies need to be pushed forward to bring down costs and achieve mass-market adoption. “Without strong and targeted R&D efforts in critical technologies,” IEA says, “net-zero emissions are not achievable.” Pushing technology into overdrive If clean energy technology isn’t even ready to hit the SDS’s net-zero-by-2070 target, how can it possibly hit net zero by 2050? That is the purpose of IEA’s Faster Innovation Case (FIC): It models what would happen if all those early-stage clean energy technologies were rapidly accelerated through the stages of innovation, twice as fast as they are in the SDS. IEA is clear that the FIC is not a recommendation. It’s a somewhat idealized exercise that would almost certainly be impossible in practice. Broad adoption of new energy technologies can take up to 80 years or more. Even some of the fastest cycles of adoption in recent history — say, LED light bulbs — took between 10 and 30 years. IEA In the FIC, all early-stage clean energy technologies would match that pace. “CO2 savings from technologies currently at the prototype or demonstration stage would be more than 75% higher in 2050 than in the Sustainable Development Scenario,” IEA reports, “and 45% of all emissions savings in 2050 would come from technologies that have not yet reached the market.” One reason those early-stage technologies could play such an outsized role is that they could help solve the problem of carbon lock-in. A certain amount of future greenhouse gas emissions are “locked in” by current investment commitments in dirty power plants and factories. Lots more emissions are about to be locked in by the next round of investment. Investment cycles for some energy technologies, especially big industrial equipment, are in the 20- to 25-year range. “If the right technologies in the steel, cement and chemical sectors can reach the market in time for the next 25-year refurbishment cycle – due to start around 2030 – they can prevent nearly 60 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions (GtCO2),” IEA reports. IEA To avoid large-scale carbon lock-in, rapid innovation is crucial. How governments can accelerate innovation Clean technology is not currently on track to do what the world will ask of it in coming decades. To get there, all the world’s major governments will need to commit to a concerted effort to accelerate its development. Here, quoting from the report, are the five recommendations IEA makes to governments to speed things up: Prioritise, track and adjust. Selecting a portfolio of technologies to support requires processes that are rigorous and flexible and that factor in local needs and advantages. Raise public R&D and market-led private innovation. Different technologies have differing needs for further support, from more public R&D funding to market incentives. Address all the links in the value chain. In each application, a technology is only as close to market as the weakest link in its value chain, and uneven progress hinders innovation. Build enabling infrastructure. Governments can mobilise private finance to address innovation gaps by sharing the risks of network enhancements and demonstrators. Work globally for regional success. The technology challenges are urgent and global, making a strong case for co-operation which could draw on existing multilateral forums. These are all pretty self-explanatory and I won’t get into the report’s extremely deep weeds — I’ll just make a couple of general points about innovation policy. First, spending more money is crucial, but it’s not enough. Good innovation policy requires a plan, forward-thinking analysis of the technology landscape and regional and local needs, and some regular assessment and self-correction. There’s no substitute for good governance. Second, innovation does not mean handing money to technologists and waiting to see what they produce. A big part of accelerating innovation is building — building the technologies themselves, to take advantage of learning-by-doing, and building the infrastructure new technologies need to grow. To scale up clean energy technologies in time, building has to start now and continue at a headlong pace for decades. Friedmann summarizes IEA’s conclusions this way: “every week is infrastructure week, for the next 30 years.” Just consider what’s involved in the Faster Innovation Case. “Robust market deployment of current prototypes would need to start right after the completion of only one single commercial-scale demonstration,” the report says, “which,” it adds with droll understatement, “is not common practice.” That will mean taking lots of big shots on risky bets, some of which will inevitably fail. Doing so requires political systems and electorates willing to be patient and forgiving. (You will recall that former president Barack Obama’s clean energy loan program, which was if anything too conservative, was forever poisoned in the public mind by Republican demagoguing of Solyndra, a company that failed after receiving government loans.) In the FIC, “demand for hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels would grow by almost 25% in 2050 over the Sustainable Development Scenario,” the report says, “requiring, for example, almost two new hydrogen-based steel plants (today at prototype stage) to be installed each month from now to 2050.” Is that pace of building and innovation even possible in hydrogen, about which many people are extremely skeptical? “If it’s required, it’s doable,” says Friedmann, “and the hydrogen piece is required. There’s no pathway that gets us to where we need to go without gobs of zero-carbon hydrogen.” As for CCUS and bioenergy, in the FIC, “CO2 capture would increase by 50% to around 7.5 GtCO2 per year in 2050,” it says, “while almost 90 new bioenergy plants equipped with CO2 capture and storage would be needed each year, nearly three times as much as the capacity projected in the Sustainable Development Scenario.” IEA (For the latest on the near-term prospects for carbon capture, see the work of Jennifer Wilcox and her team at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute on CCS as applied to natural gas, the US industrial sector, and direct air capture.) Similarly, the rapid development of battery technology will enable much faster electrification of heavy transportation (and thus the building of new fleets): IEA Building at this pace (two steel plants a month, 90 bioenergy plants a year, and similar numbers for other clean technologies) is virtually unknown outside of wartime, and it has certainly never been done globally. “There is little or no precedent for the required pace of innovation in the Faster Innovation Case,” IEA says, “and it does not leave any room for any delays or unexpected operational problems during demonstration or at any other stage.” If there are delays — if, for instance, in the US, a Republican Senate refuses to pass any legislation that might politically benefit new Democratic president Joe Biden — the eventual task will grow more difficult and expensive. “A delay in demonstration projects and a slowdown in deployment of early adoption technologies following the Covid-19 crisis would require greater government efforts down the line,” IEA says. “For example, capital costs of key technologies like hydrogen electrolysers could increase by up to 10% by 2030, making it harder to scale up production.” To accelerate out of the virus slump, every government needs to get going on clean energy innovation immediately, and at speed. There’s more than enough consensus on innovation to move forward Three quick final things to say about the report. First, I was happy to see IEA emphasize a point I’ve been making for years, which is that smaller scale, distributed energy technologies, including digital and information technologies, innovate faster than large, capital-intensive techs like carbon capture facilities or steel plants. Shutterstock Small and modular. “When you get to these really large-scale infrastructure projects like CCS,” says Sonia Aggarwal, an energy analyst with the research firm Energy Innovation, “each stair step of innovation is a billion dollars, at least, and you have to build a number of them before you realize what is going well and what isn’t.” In contrast, IEA points out, smaller and more modular technologies lend themselves to mass production, standardization, and continuous learning, which have benefited solar PV and lithium-ion batteries. Because smaller techs are frequently networked (especially in electricity), they produce large knowledge spillover effects into other technologies. And digital technologies are not only quick to iterate, they can accelerate the pace at which other, non-digital technologies reach market. Internet and communication technology (ICT) can help substitute computing power, which is getting cheaper, for labor and material, which are not — substitute “intelligence for stuff,” as I like to put it. Here’s the thing, though. It seems to me that if a) you desperately need rapid innovation in clean energy technologies, b) some clean energy technologies innovate faster than others, and c) you are short on time, it makes sense to lean into the tech that moves faster. Smaller, modular, distributed tech might not get you all the way there — there may never be a small, modular steel plant — but, especially in electricity (the core of the future energy system) it can do a great deal. A more rapid rate of innovation is a reason to prefer smaller, networked technologies, and to think about how a future energy system can be built around them. Though IEA does not draw that conclusion explicitly, I think it ought to. Second, IEA is still drawing on the climate models that inform the IPCC and other international climate organizations, and there are some climate analysts who think that those models underestimate the growth of clean energy and thus overestimate the future rise in emissions. “We might be reaching somewhat pessimistic conclusions due in part to limitations of modeling,” says Aggarwal. “We may be making the problem harder on ourselves than it needs to be.” This dispute matters, because if zero-carbon energy can get closer to true zero emissions, then negative emissions will have less work to do — and R&D should shift from CCUS to electrification and hydrogen accordingly. (Again, it’s not an either-or choice, but there is a question of priorities.) It makes sense to get CCUS ready for the market regardless, if nothing else as a hedge against downside risk, but if the decarbonization task is going to be less difficult — still incredibly difficult, but less difficult — than we currently project, we can take a somewhat more hopeful and less defensive view. Put all that aside, though. My third and most important point is simply that, no matter what you might think about the ideal path or energy mix for getting to net zero, there is no credible climate analyst who disagrees with the need for rapid innovation. Innovation in early-stage technologies is not, as it has sometimes been seen by climate advocates, a substitute for or a distraction from the deployment of existing, mature clean energy technologies. It is obvious that both innovation and deployment are urgently needed. Indeed, as IEA points out, large-scale deployment is rightly seen as a part of innovation policy. Deployment is one of the key forces driving innovation in later stage technologies, through economies of scale and learning by doing. Whatever their disagreements about the quality of climate models, the merits of various technologies, or the ultimate prospects for success, climate policy analysts agree on the short-term need for radically increased R&D spending, a system for moving technologies quickly over the “valley of death” between lab and market, and a rapid build-out of enabling infrastructure like high-voltage transmission lines, electric vehicle chargers, and CO2 pipelines. Most countries aren’t doing anything like this. “Low-carbon energy R&D spending in IEA member countries has been broadly stable since 2012, after doubling between 2000 and 2012,” says IEA. “It remains below the levels in the 1980s, however.” That is insane. FAS In 2016 dollars, the US Department of Energy spent more on renewable energy R&D in 1978 than in 2018. The task may appear particularly challenging from the perspective of dysfunctional US politics; there are at least a few successes to cite. Anna Goldstein, an energy researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, points to ARPA-E, the advanced energy research agency created under Obama. “There was an idea for innovation policy, it got put into practice, and now we’re seeing results from it,” she says, “and people on both sides of the aisle are saying, ‘this is great, let’s scale it up even farther’. That’s promising.” For good examples of long-term thinking and planning, she cites the US Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization and the Quadrennial Energy Review. “We can pretend we all just blacked out for four years,” she says, “and then build on the successes of the Obama administration.” We know what needs to be done and, more or less, how to do it. The recipe for responding to climate change is simple: Learn and build, learn and build, learn and build, not as part of any one-time, grandiose mega-plan, not toward any particular finish line in 2030, 2050, or even 3000, but as a way of organizing our collective life on the planet, the central and intense focus of all our wealth and ingenuity. “There’s nothing in the physics, chemistry, or finance that’s prohibitive,” says Friedmann, “the question is whether we can we learn to tie our shoes.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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