Kicking off the Climate Next debate.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Nov. 16 2010 11:44 AM

Innovate First, Regulate Later

Kicking off the Climate Next debate.

Read an introduction to the series by Alexis Madrigal and follow the responses from our panel of climate-policy experts.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

With a bang in Copenhagen and a whimper in the U.S. Senate, the 20-year effort to deal with global warming by capping emissions and putting a price on carbon has come to an end. In the wake of the crash, climate advocates have advanced a range of ideas about how to move forward. Some suggest that a scaled-back version of cap-and-trade, focused only on the utility sector, might work. Others say we need a carbon tax that refunds all its revenue to the public. Still others insist that we must build a stronger political movement to overcome the opposition of climate skeptics and fossil fuel interests.

Unfortunately, most of these strategies only dress up the failed solutions of the last several decades in new clothing. In order to move beyond these unsuccessful strategies, climate advocates must come to terms with why those efforts have failed. Doing so requires abandoning many deeply held assumptions that have informed climate policy and advocacy for decades.

To start, we must acknowledge that current technology is insufficient to significantly reduce emissions. Today's low-carbon technologies are simply too expensive and too difficult to scale; they do not yet represent a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Wind energy, the cheapest renewable technology, still costs 50 percent more than coal or gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.


Because low-carbon technologies cost so much more, no political economy in the world has been willing to raise fossil energy prices high enough to make renewable energy cost-competitive at any scale that matters. In his scrupulously researched new book, The Climate Fix, the political scientist Roger Pielke, Jr., our colleague and a senior fellow at the Breakthrough Institute, calls the unwillingness of governments to sacrifice economic growth for global warming the "iron law of climate policy."

The iron law tells us that the basic math of global emissions will only become more unforgiving. As countries like China and India develop, they will demand ever-greater supplies of cheap energy. Global energy use will likely double or triple over the next 50 years, even if we use energy much more efficiently. If developing countries can't get energy from cheap low-carbon sources, they will get it from fossil fuels.

While the iron law of climate may seem obvious, many on the left continue to reject it, insisting that turning up the volume with dire warnings of climate apocalypse and civil-rights-style protests can overcome the basic technological and economic obstacles to action. These efforts have only resulted in the intensification of the climate wars and increased the polarization of the issue.

Coming to terms with these realities will require answering a raft of questions. If campaigns based on the dangers of global warming don't work, how can we build a different kind of political consensus for action? Given our increasingly polarized political culture, where are the opportunities for bipartisanship? How do we reduce carbon emissions in the absence of high carbon prices and what strategies can accommodate developing countries' overriding need for inexpensive energy?

In the end, all questions—whether political or economic—return to questions of technology. What will it take to develop energy technologies that are clean, cheap, and abundant? If private firms are unlikely to make sustained investments in the development of those technologies, what role should the public sector play in undertaking those activities? How do we ensure that such efforts will improve the cost and performance of energy technologies, rather than simply subsidizing the production of more of the same?

At the Breakthrough Institute, we've long championed energy innovation and technology investment as the central strategies to address climate change. This approach is consistent with America's historically bipartisan commitment to economic prosperity and geopolitical security and our long tradition of investing in new technologies that have remade American life for the better.

A technology-first policy is not the same as a technology-only one. Better and cheaper energy technologies are a precondition for successful caps or carbon taxes, not a substitute. This is, in fact, how the United States tackled past pollution challenges like acid rain and ozone depletion: First we created low-cost alternatives, and then we implemented regulations to require their widespread adoption.

But this is just one strategy. No doubt there are other ways to answer the pressing questions raised by cap-and-trade's failure. Climate Next panelists and readers: What strategies do you see succeeding in the post-Copenhagen world? How might we go about achieving them?


This story was produced by Slate for the Climate Desk collaboration.

Like Slate on  Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.

Michael Shellenberger is a co-author of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and co-founder of Breakthrough Institute.

Ted Nordhaus is a co-author of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and co-founder of Breakthrough Institute.



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.


Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.