A long-simmering debate has come to a boil among climate policy
specialists over the most effective way to ensure humanity has the
necessary hardware it needs to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to
virtually zero over the course of this century.
At issue is whether the current tack on climate policy, which
emphasizes the establishment of binding emissions goals, should take
a back seat to an all-out push to develop the technology needed to
accomplish that feat.
Politicians are more likely to back tight emissions targets if
the tools to meet them are readily at hand, proponents of a
technology-first approach argue.
"This is one of the two or three central debates in the climate
issue," says Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American
Progress in Washington and a top US Energy Department official
during President Clinton's second term.
The trigger for the flare-up is a critique issued Thursday that
attempts to show that the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change has significantly understated the technology challenge the
world faces on climate change. It does so, the argument goes, by
overestimating the pace at which less carbon-intense and more energy-
efficient technologies take root naturally as economies evolve.
Given the twin demands of controlling climate change and ensuring
the world's future energy needs are met, "the first question to ask
is not 'how do we reduce emissions?' " says Roger Pielke Jr., a
science-policy specialist at the University of Colorado at Boulder,
the author of the critique. Instead, he says, the question should
be: "In a world that needs vast amounts of more energy, how can we
provide that energy in ways that do not lead to the accumulation of
carbon in the atmosphere?"
Technologies that are already at hand or likely to go commercial
over the next decade may not be climate friendly enough to stabilize
atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations so that global warming is
held to about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by century's end. At this
stage, he says, people should focus more on policies that directly
address what many analysts see as a yawning technology gap, rather
than on regulatory approaches that deal with the gap less directly.
The critique by Dr. Pielke and colleagues at the National Center
for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and McGill University in
Montreal, has touched off a small firestorm among the scientific
community - in no small part because it appeared in the pages of
Nature, one of the most high-profile science journals on the planet.
Some of the reaction to the critique focuses on the nuts and
bolts of the argument, which implies that when the IPCC lays out
emissions projections, it might do better to assume that
technologies don't get much better over time. That would give a
clearer sense of the challenge ahead than assuming - as they argue
the IPCC does now - that anywhere from half to virtually all of the
technology gap could close in the course of ordinary economic
"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. …