Barack Obama has been a strong champion of clean energy. Throughout his presidency, even while getting attacked by opponents for supporting the industry, Obama has stuck to his guns on the need to develop more renewable energy and make our economy more efficient.
So it’s distressing when the President joins the ranks of doubters and climate delayers by making a statement like this in an interview with a prominent magazine:
On climate change, it's a daunting task. But we know what releases carbon into the atmosphere, and we have tools right now that would start scaling that back, although we'd still need some big technological breakthrough.
Obama may not realize it, but this is a very dangerous statement. A message from one of the world’s most powerful leaders that we “need some big technological breakthrough” to deal with climate change is arguably as negatively influential as the fossil fuel-funded deniers who spread doubt about whether the planet is warming.
There are two types of people in the climate action world.
The first type—usually people focused on deploying clean energy projects—argues that we can reach very high penetrations with today’s technologies.
The second type—doubters, spin artists, cautious supporters, and well-intentioned futurists—argues that we can’t do anything meaningful without major technology breakthroughs.
Although many people in the second camp believe they are doing good, they are actually spreading a message of doubt about our ability to solve the problem today.
People who argue for big breakthroughs aren’t totally wrong. Of course we want to encourage technological leaps by investing in R&D and helping bring emerging technologies to market. But the energy market doesn’t change in leaps—it goes through evolutionary change as technologies get tested in the marketplace, investors become more comfortable with them, and prices come steadily down as projects get deployed and businesses get more sophisticated.
We’ve conditioned ourselves to think of the energy market in the context of the information technology revolution, where massive change happened quickly. But in the energy sector, change happens over decades as deployment cycles evolve. Because it takes many years to bring a technology from the lab to the market, deployment needs to be our top priority. We don’t have decades to wait for the next revolutionary technology.
Let’s use another IT analogy. Saying that climate solutions can’t scale without significant breakthroughs is like saying we shouldn’t bother with the Internet because all we have are desktop computers and DSL, rather than powerful mobile devices and a 4G network. The fact is we are in the middle of an important period of technological progress today, and saying that we need a “big technological breakthrough” to take action is wrong and downright dangerous.
We know how to deal with the problem. We need to implement strong policies to make our cities more walkable, our buildings more efficient, and our energy system more dependent on renewable resources. We have the know-how and the technologies today to accomplish those tasks. The key issue is not technology readiness—it is market adoption.
Consider this: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory concluded recently that America can supply 80 percent of U.S. electricity with renewables by 2050 with commercially available technologies. The real challenge in reaching that goal isn’t whether the technology works—it is creating innovative financial models, getting utilities comfortable with renewables, and creating better targets for deployment.
The same goes for building efficiency and transportation. We have the technologies already to make our economy far less energy-intensive. The real barrier is adoption, which takes time as technologies and business models evolve.
By strongly supporting clean energy deployment over the last four years, President Obama has put a foundation in place for a large-scale economic shift. Companies are putting more projects in the ground then ever, consumers and investors are getting more comfortable with the technologies, and our economy is becoming modestly less carbon-intensive. In order to accelerate this trend and actually deal with climate change, we can’t wait for new technologies to suddenly emerge out of the lab—we need to deploy what’s already proven.
Sadly, the President is indicating to the world that today’s investments don’t add up to meaningful climate action. That is simply not the truth.
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Stephen Lacey is a Senior Editor at Greentech Media, where he reports on the business of cleantech. He was formerly Deputy Editor of Climate Progress, a leading climate and energy blog run by the Center for American Progress. He writes daily on clean energy policy, technologies, and finance. He received his B.A. in journalism from Franklin Pierce University.