Decades ago, the state of California tried to strike a major blow against climate change, and failed. The state passed an ambitious rule in 1990 mandating car companies slowly begin replacing their offerings with electric vehicles (EVs). But in 2002, the state backed off the policy. Part of the reason was political—car companies, aided by the Bush Administration, were fighting the state every step of the way. But the EVs of the day also weren’t very good—the industry’s best offerings could barely get 80 miles on a single charge.
We’ve come a long way since then. Today’s EVs work great, and so does the rest of the widely available tech—renewables, battery storage, heat pumps, insulation—needed to claw our way out of our climate mess. The reason for the current absence of climate action—that is, our world leaders’ stupefying, infuriating, and utterly senseless fossil fuel suicide pact—has very little to do with a need for further technological innovation. Rather, according to the most recent IPCC climate change report published this week, the blame falls more on a consistent lack of political will, financial institutions’ failure to disinvest from fossil fuels, and the enduring power of the entrenched interests dedicated to pulling every last barrel of oil and bucket of coal from the Earth.
A version of this story first appeared in the Climate is Everything newsletter. To sign up, click here.
I write on technology and climate change. For me and others tasked with reporting on our current crisis and the systems we have to solve it, it’s important to get our framing right. Though the newest, flashiest technologies still under development are interesting, they aren’t necessarily the most important. The fact of the matter, according to the world’s leading climate scientists, is that the decarbonization tools we have right now are cheap and work well. The price of solar energy has fallen 85% since 2010, while wind power is half as expensive. And at this point we simply don’t have time to wait around for technology that isn’t ready now. “We have to reach a peak no later than 2025 in our greenhouse gas emissions,” says Tom Evans, a researcher at climate think tank E3G. “All of those technologies that are speculative, that are untested and untried, they’re not going to be able to deliver in that timeframe.”
The most urgent problem is getting politicians and business to quickly scale up the technologies we already have in order to make immediate emissions cuts and keep global warming from spiraling out of control. But you might not necessarily hear that in much of the public conversation around climate change these days. Reporters often write about nascent technologies like machines to suck carbon out of the air as fix-its for climate change. Climate investors like actor Robert Downey Jr. make ridiculous claims that such technologies are “just as important” as immediately scaling up proven, widely-available renewable energy solutions. And politicians like Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin kill policies that would dramatically expand the rollout of green energy while simultaneously throwing billions of dollars at controversial, unproven technologies like blue hydrogen.
That’s not to say all these technologies are useless or unworthy of investment (carbon removal tech, for instance, will likely be needed to offset hard-to-decarbonize industries, like aviation). But we can’t characterize the climate crisis as a technology problem to be solved by scrappy innovators and climate VC funds if their solutions won’t be ready until long after our deadlines to cut emissions have come and gone. Such framings make it sound like it’s okay if we blow past the atmosphere’s carbon thresholds, and simply hope that technologies like carbon capture or fission energy will help us rein in the problem later—an insanely risky gamble over the fate of human civilization. They also tend to play into the hands of industries that seek to use techno-fixes as a distraction from real climate action; Shell, for instance, has promoted efforts to develop brand-new decarbonization technologies while simultaneously funding ad blitzes to oppose legislation that would deliver near-term emissions cuts.
Instead, says Jamal Raad, director of climate advocacy group Evergreen Action, we need to keep our focus on the policy realm, where, in the U.S., we’re at a make-or-break moment to ram through legislation to scale up current green technologies and cut emissions on the timescales science demands. “I understand more than anyone as someone who’s worked in politics for 15 years that it’s messy and gross,” he says. “People would like to think that there’s a way that you can skip it to solve problems. But unfortunately you cannot.”
For someone who writes on technology, it’s not necessarily fun to hear that scientific progress isn’t enough—that the world’s fate relies on politicians. But considering how far behind we are in the race to decarbonize the world, and how our leaders seem unwilling or unable to go up against vested fossil fuel interests to fix the problem, we need to be honest with ourselves. Scientists and engineers have already created the technologies that can save us. What we need now is the courage to use them.
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