Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems

Jason Pontin at Technology Review argues: “It’s not true that we can’t solve big problems through technology; we can. We must. But all these elements must be present: political leaders and the public must care to solve a problem, our institutions must support its solution, it must really be a technological problem, and we must understand it.”

In particular:

Sometimes we fail to solve big problems because our institutions have failed. In 2010, less than 2 percent of the world’s energy consumption was derived from advanced renewable sources such as wind, solar, and biofuels. (The most common renewable sources of energy are still hydroelectric power and the burning of biomass, which means wood and cow dung.) The reason is economic: coal and natural gas are cheaper than solar and wind, and petroleum is cheaper than biofuels. Because climate change is a real and urgent problem, and because the main cause of global warming is carbon dioxide released as a by-product of burning fossil fuels, we need renewable energy technologies that can compete on price with coal, natural gas, and petroleum. At the moment, they don’t exist.

Happily, economists, technologists, and business leaders agree on what national policies and international treaties would spur the development and broad use of such alternatives. There should be a significant increase in public investment for energy research and development, which has fallen in the United States from a height of 10 percent in 1979 to 2 percent of total R&D spending, or just $5 billion a year. (Two years ago, Bill Gates, Xerox chief executive Ursula Burns, GE chief executive Jeff Immelt, and John Doerr, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist, called for a threefold increase in public investments in energy research.) There should be some kind of price on carbon, now a negative externality, whether it is a transparent tax or some more opaque market mechanism. There should be a regulatory framework that treats carbon dioxide emissions as pollution, setting upper limits on how much pollution companies and nations can release. Finally, and least concretely, energy experts agree that even if there were more investment in research, a price on carbon, and some kind of regulatory framework, we would still lack one vital thing: sufficient facilities to demonstrate and test new energy technologies. Such facilities are typically too expensive for private companies to build. But without a practical way to collectively test and optimize innovative energy technologies, and without some means to share the risks of development, alternative energy sources will continue to have little impact on energy use, given that any new technology will be more expensive at first than fossil fuels.

Less happily, there is no hope of any U.S. energy policy or international treaties that reflect this intellectual consensus, because one political party in the United States is reflexively opposed to industrial regulations and affects to doubt that human beings are causing climate change, and because the emerging markets of China and India will not reduce their emissions without offset benefits that the industrialized nations cannot provide. Without international treaties or U.S. policy, there will probably be no competitive alternative sources of energy in the near future, barring what is sometimes called an “energy miracle.”

Duh.

The rest of Pontin’s article elaborates on the interesting point that technology is necessary but not sufficient. Sometimes, though, it pays to just restate the obvious.

Whence the above, which should by now be obvious to everybody, but unfortunately, isn’t.

h/t +Sunil Joshi

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