Why Solving Climate Change Will Be Like Mobilizing for War

And even then, victory is far from guaranteed.

Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

As the 19th century entered its final decade, the War of Currents was nearing its peak. On one side of this war was Thomas Edison, who had invested heavily in direct-current (DC) technology. Tesla and Westinghouse backed alternating-current (AC), which they believed (correctly) to be more efficient.

In the spring of 1891, a seemingly small event in Telluride, Colorado, decisively turned the tide in favor of AC. The Ames hydroelectric-power plant, financed by mining entrepreneur L. L. Nunn, and built around equipment supplied by Westinghouse, began transmitting AC power to Nunn’s gold-mining operations 2.6 miles away.

It was the first successful demonstration of AC’s efficiency advantages over long distances, and it led to the unveiling of AC at the 1893 Chicago World Fair, followed by Westinghouse winning the contract to build an AC-based power plant at Niagara falls. The rest is history. Edison lost the plot, and AC came to dominate the story of electricity.

The victory of AC over DC, in the midst of a noisy debate fueled as much by misinformation and propaganda as by science, is the sort of outcome under uncertainty that markets excel at delivering.

In 2015, the climate-change debate is where the War of Currents was in 1893. The December climate convention in Paris, COP 21, is shaping up to be the most significant since Kyoto in 1997. It might well do for clean-energy technologies what the Chicago World Fair did for electricity. It might be an inflection point.

Except this time around, the drama centers on government and UN technocrats rather than technologists and private investors. Rather than trusting market serendipity, climate experts are hoping that strong regulatory forcing combined with aggressive government investment in energy R&D will do the trick. In the November issue of The Atlantic, Bill Gates makes a persuasive case for just this approach.

Is Gates right that this dual-pronged attack is necessary? Probably. Can it work? There’s a slim chance.

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It’s clear that the market is unlikely to solve the problem of climate change on its own. If scientists are right, and there is no reason to think they aren’t, averting climate change will require such large-scale, rapid action, that no single energy technology, new or emerging, could be the solution. Neither could any single non-energy technology, such as video-conferencing as a substitute for travel, solve the problem on its own.

There is always a possibility that a single cheap and effective solution will emerge, rendering expensive interventions moot, but few climate experts are willing to trust the future to that unlikely prospect.

The challenge therefore, is one of rapid, concerted deployment of a portfolio of emerging and mature energy and non-energy technologies. This means accepting a certain level of attendant risks. The Volkwagen emissions scandal illustrates these risks well: Aggressive forcing, through EU policy instruments, of the adoption of diesel engines (which are better suited to reducing emissions) created incentives that led to sophisticated gaming.

The Volkswagen scandal won’t be the last or the worst. Unlike many of the other objections put forth by climate skeptics, the objection that managing moral hazards at a planetary scale might prove impossible is a solid one.

Assuming we do manage to significantly accelerate deployment without cancerous levels of corporatist corruption, if emissions targets still remain out of reach, some growth must be temporarily sacrificed. At the same time, investment across the portfolio of energy technologies will need to continue.

In other words, we are contemplating the sorts of austerities associated with wartime economies. For ordinary Americans, austerities might include an end to expansive suburban lifestyles and budget air travel, and an accelerated return to high-density urban living and train travel. For businesses, this might mean rethinking entire supply chains, as high-emissions sectors become unviable under new emissions regimes.

What Gates and others are advocating for is not so much a technological revolution as a technocratic one. One for which there is no successful peacetime precedent. Which is not to say, of course, that it cannot work. There is always a first time for every new level of complexity and scale in human cooperation. But it’s sobering to look back at the (partial) precedents we do have.

Of the previous six energy revolutions of comparable magnitude—wind, water, coal, oil, electricity, and nuclear—only nuclear power had anywhere near the same level of early-stage technocratic shaping that we are contemplating. Among technological revolutions outside the energy sector, only space exploration, nuclear-weapons technology, and computing technology have had similar levels of bureaucratic direction.

None of these are true comparables, however, for one critical reason. In each historical case, the revolution was highly focused on a single core technology rather than a broad portfolio of technologies, and a managed transition of infrastructure at civilization scale. In the case of aerospace and computing technologies, the comparison is even weaker: Those sectors enjoyed several decades of organic evolution driven primarily by inventors, private investors, and market forces before technocrats got involved.

Even in the most relevant precedent, the response to ozone depletion, the technical challenge was to develop substitutes for one specific class of chemicals (CFCs) with a relatively narrow range of applications in refrigeration and aerosols.

Precedents in public health, civil engineering, epidemiology, and public safety offer clearer examples of technocrat-led revolutions. But those transitions were far simpler, technologically, than a retooling of global energy infrastructure.

Properly qualified, there is only one successful precedent for the kind of technological mobilization we are contemplating: the mobilization of American industry during World War II.

The proposed climate change war—and no other term is suitable given the scale, complexity, and speed of the task—requires a level of trust in academic and energy-sector public institutions (including international ones) comparable to the trust placed in military institutions during times of war.

The significant political difference is that climate change offers up no conveniently terrifying dictator, against whom to rally the troops and general population. Without a sufficiently charismatic narrative, casualties will go largely unacknowledged, like the victims of the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 (which caused about twice as many deaths as World War I, but is barely remembered today outside of public-health circles).

What climate change does offer in place of an evil dictator though, is a powerful appeal to parental instincts. The degree to which we are able to prevent future pain will depend strongly on the ability of politicians to establish the narrative that we must allocate high costs today, while we can still afford them, in order to save unborn generations from avertable disasters.

In a time of war, the alternative to trusting the military and defense establishments is leaving all action to guerilla militias in occupied territories. In the war against climate change, the alternative to trusting technocrats, regulatory machinery, and public institutions is to trust small-scale libertarian ingenuity to bail out Bangladesh in the event of large-scale climate-change. That’s not likely to happen.

We either trust public institutions, based on specialized expertise, and accept the risk that they might be wrong, as in the case of the intelligence establishment and WMDs in Iraq—or we limit collective action to issues where it is possible to achieve informed consensus among laypersons. The last time that was a realistic possibility in a major economy was before the rise of the Interstate Commerce Commission in the United States in 1887.

This is not a comforting conclusion, but then, no decision to mobilize on a large scale for a war-like collective action ever is. So it is important to understand that this is the decision under consideration.

We are not being asked to understand, en masse, the intricacies of climate science and technology deployment any more than the population of a nation at war is asked to understand the intricacies of intelligence gathering or military campaign planning. We are being asked to trust the integrity and declared intentions of institutions that do understand the intricacies. We are being asked to trust that despite any de facto ideological biases, professionalism will prevail.

In the war against climate change, powerful technocrats will be far more consequential than energy-sector technologists. Think of Colonel John Boyd, widely regarded as the architect of modern American military strategy, and a renowned master of bureaucratic warfare within the Pentagon. Think of Admiral Hyman Rickover, widely credited for the extraordinary safety record of the U.S. nuclear-submarine fleet. Boyd and Rickover were exemplars of bureaucratic heroism. Both were highly effective, but largely anonymous technocrats, maneuvering imaginatively within public institutions to deploy public resources. These will be the heroes in the war against climate change.

To the extent that energy technocrats are able to maneuver around bureaucratic inertia, investments at the levels suggested by Gates might pay off, and the response to climate change has a shot at success.

There are early signs that this is happening. California regulator Mary Nichols’s battles with the auto industry to accelerate the adoption of electric cars in California are reminiscent of Boyd’s legendary battles with the military-industrial complex in the development of highly effective combat aircraft like the F16.

Reposing this kind of trust in public officials can seem dangerous, but as the recent vaccine debates showed, it is even more dangerous to trust uninformed, but ideologically strident and media-savvy interest groups being misled by charismatic non-institutional figures. Lay skeptics can be relied upon to tease out the hypocrisies and obvious lies of politicians, but are far too easily misled on scientific matters. To rely on mobs to correctly interpret Sankey diagrams and ocean-acidification chemistry is like trusting a high-school football coach to correctly interpret the battle plans for the invasion of an enemy nation. Or trusting a Hollywood celebrity to meaningfully opine on vaccine biochemistry and epidemiological models.

Climate change is not a game for amateurs. The evolving nature of the science, and the possibility (always present in science) that some of today’s beliefs might be overturned by new evidence and models, is not a reason to second guess scientists or trust conspiracy theorists instead. That doesn’t mean we don’t risk corporatist corruption, cronyism, and outright wartime profiteering. But we do not yet know how to act beyond a certain scale and speed without those risks.

So a technocrat-led, government-coordinated international response is probably necessary. Can it work?

Like many technologists whose opinions have been shaped by Internet-era technologies, I’d like to see the institutions we are being asked to trust adopt some of the operating mechanisms I have grown to trust. Like many, including presumably Bill Gates, I hope the climate war will be fought with agile, open processes, networked organizational forms, and a great deal more autonomy for low-level actors than technocracies have historically been willing to cede.

I’d also like claims to professional authority on the part of frontline actors to be based on visible accomplishments rather than credentials. I hope the action (or inaction, rather) will not be driven by gridlocked committees inching towards ineffective and expensive compromises with excruciating slowness, after hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis and Sub-Saharan Africans have already lost their lives or livelihoods.

But to base decisions on comparisons between imaginary more-perfect institutions that might exist, and flawed, but slowly evolving institutions that do exist, is a perfect example of the nirvana fallacy. The pragmatic path is to trust that the technocrats in charge will fight the necessary bureaucratic battles with sufficient skill and professionalism to actually win in time to make a difference.

Can this work? There’s a slim chance, but it’s probably the best chance we have. And even a small chance of preventing massive misery in parts of the world (and periods of the future) that did not cause the problem, is worth taking.