Climate change debate: push emissions goals or technology?
Should the world put less focus on emissions caps and more on spurring clean technologies?
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"That's an old game I've seen for 20 years," says Henry Jacoby, co-director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In basing their analysis on frozen technologies, Pielke and his colleagues offer up futures "that are not going to exist." Rising energy prices, shifts away from energy intensive industries toward service- and information-based economies, and unforeseen applications of new technologies historically have combined to squeeze more energy out of existing sources, as well as trigger alternatives. There's no reason to think that won't continue, Dr, Jacoby says.Skip to next paragraph
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Other critics say a technology-first approach implies delaying action until it's too late. Future technologies "are irrelevant if you don't reverse course now" by "putting the pedal to the metal and deploy every last bit of technology we have today nationally and globally," says Dr. Romm.
How the debate has transformed
In many ways, the growing profile of this debate may not be so much because it's new but because it's one of the last disagreements standing on climate change. Discussions are shifting from drawn-out broadsides over whether human-triggered global warming is a problem and toward crafting the policy and technology tools to meet climate needs without undercutting economic growth, particularly in developing countries.
The shift has been prompted not only by recent evidence of how climate has changed over the long term and the speed of recent changes, but by the growth in greenhouse-gas emissions as developing economies in China, India, and other countries take off.
According to the IPCC, atmospheric concentrations of carbons need to be stabilized at levels that hold global warming to 3.6 degrees F., the maximum temperature required to stave off the worst effects of warming. To do this, many researchers say emissions must peak between 2015 and 2020 then quickly begin to fall.
Others, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's James Hansen, now argue that to avoid the worst global warming can bring, the long-term temperature stabilization goal needs to be even lower.
Yet for all the thunder and fury the latest critique has generated, there is broad agreement that countries are falling far short of using the tools available, given the brief time for action – at least in political terms – that the latest IPCC reports imply. From environmentalists such as Lester Brown, who heads the Earth Policy Institute in Washington to economists such as Jeffery Sachs, who heads Columbia University's Earth Institute, there is a consensus that far more needs to be done to expand the use of current and foreseeable technologies, as well as enlisting labs worldwide in a broad hunt for new generations of technologies.
Some put it in terms of establishing the equivalent of the Manhattan Project; others call for a level of focused investment comparable to what is spent on the National Institutes of Health.
Yet the magnitude of the technological challenge should not be reason for despair, analysts say. "It seems to me that we're not stuck with no place to turn," says Dr. Sachs.