WASHINGTON – TIME magazine has a lengthy portrait of Tom Steyer, (Green Giant, June 2, 2014), a California billionaire who decided to spend millions in order to support political candidates who pledge to fight global warming.
Global warming is the enemy
According to the TIME article, Steyer seriously believes that global warming is the defining issue of our times. It is an urgent matter that requires immediate policy changes. Hence his determination to support political candidates and major legislative or regulatory initiatives that will result in diminishing the use of carbon based energy, while favoring renewables.
On the face of it, all this is really odd. Even assuming that Mr. Steyer is totally right and that indeed man-made global warming is real, the notion that throwing his money to elect Democrat Terry McAuliffe Governor of Virginia will help stop or reverse global warming –a planetary phenomenon– is so bizarre that it looks really stupid.
Electing green candidates in the US will change nothing
Here are some simple facts. Whatever you may believe about global warming, without the active committment of China, India and many more major polluters to drastically cut their emissions, there will be no total emission reductions. (By the way, it looks as if the world is in fact moving exactly in the opposite direction. In case Mr. Steyer missed it, China just signed the carbon energy deal of the century with Russia, worth $ 400 billion. Russia will supply natural gas to China for the next 30 years. What’s Mr. Steyer going to do about that? Will he fund a political campaign to unseat Vladimir Putin, so that he can force Russia to reverse this deal?)
And, even assuming that the worst Asian polluters were totally on board (as of today, obviously they are not), even assuming a global and enforceable committment to reduce emissions by curbing the use of carbon based energy, the impact on global temperatures would be minimal. In other words, unless we want to outlaw carbon altogether, this way regressing to pastoral, pre-industrial societies, reducing carbon based energy consumption here and there would make little difference.
If this is so, does Mr. Steyer (and his political allies) really believe that passing this green measure in California or electing that Governor in Virginia will really move the needle on a vast problem that is by their own definition global?
Of course one might reply to this question by stating that “Surely it is better to do something rather than stand by and do nothing, while our planet is cooked by global warming…you have to start somewhere to build an anti-global warming coalition, etc.”
OK, I get it. But I do not agree.
Indeed, the whole effort, even if well-intentioned, looks really impractical, in fact utterly futile. And, from a public policy stand point, the approach –forcing emission cuts through laws and regulations– looks extremely expensive and therefore ill-advised.
Even if Mr. Steyer won all his political battles and green friendly elected officials will be able to set policy for the entire United States, new mandates forcing everybody to use renewables will cost a fortune while they will produce negligible results.
This is not a way to say that greenhouse gases emissions do not exist or that global warming is just a minor issue.
Focus on developing cost-effective renewables
This is to say that we need a different approach. And this has to focus not on curbing the use of carbon based energy but on producing economically viable alternatives to carbon.
To borrow a fictitious example, word processing did not get established as the normal way to compose documents because in the 1980s policy-makers put a tax on typewriters, while granting tax brakes to Microsoft.
The market simply adopted a superior technology –but only after it was proven that the new technology was demonstrably superior.
When it became obvious that word processing run through PCs was a better tool, typewriters disappeared. This revolution did not require special laws, mandates or policy changes. A more efficient tool replaced the old one.
The simple truth is that solar panels, wind and other alternatives have not yet reached this stage. While progressing, the renewable energy revolution is still immature. As yet, we simply do not have truly cost-effective alternatives to carbon based energy sources. If the currently available solar panels, wind farms and what not were economically viable, then they would be adopted by all users, whatever they believe about global warming, simply because they would be efficient and cheaper. As of today, they are not.
And this is why well-intentioned policy-makers (some of them elected via Mr. Steyer’s money) can deploy these still imperfect technologies only through mandates, subsidies and tax cuts. The simple reality is that, as of today, renewable energy solutions have to be imposed because they are not yet mature.
Europe tried and failed
And Mr. Steyer should just look at the outcome of Europe’s disastrous attempts to force an energy production revolution by deploying currently available renewable energy technologies.
Solar panels in Germany and wind power in Spain have produced some of the highest electricity prices in the world, with no appreciable environmental impact in Europe, let alone the world.
Use money to fund more R&D
Given all this, here is a practical suggestion. Mr. Steyer’s precious money should be devoted to fund more research and development in renewable energy alternatives. I am confident that human ingenuity sooner rather than later will come up with economically viable alternatives to carbon. More R&D money invested in this effort hopefully will accelerate the innovation-seeking process.
When we reach that point, the new zero-emission technologies will be adopted not because they are virtuous but because they are viable. Commercially competitive renewable energy, not politically mandated regulations, will help us cut emissions.