This piece is part of a roundtable centered around innovation prescriptions for the new Congress and President Barack Obama’s second term. Read more about the roundtable here.
In 2012, superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast to the tune of $50 to $60 billion in damage. A record-breaking drought wiped out almost a third of the nation’s corn crop, resulting in roughly $18 billion in losses. The Arctic ice cap shrank to a record minimum, decades ahead of the projections made by climate scientists as recently as 2007. In short, 2012 was the year that climate change made its impact, more than any other year in modern history. Worse, it’s just the beginning — a small taste of what’s to come.
It’s time to admit what climate change is. It’s a national security threat — a threat that has already destroyed the nation’s property, wrecked its crops and taken the lives of its citizens. Against that threat, our most powerful weapon is innovation: innovation in solar and wind power, in energy efficiency, in batteries and other energy storage techniques, in advance biofuels that suck carbon out of the air as they’re made. Innovation in all of those fields is happening. Indeed, it’s happening at an astounding pace. Yet even so, it’s not progressing quickly enough to put us on track to avoid the worst of climate change. We need to move faster.
Under normal conditions, the market would recognize this threat and shift even more resources towards innovation in green energy and related fields. But today’s market — where anyone can pump an unlimited amount of carbon into the atmosphere at no cost — is deeply flawed. It’s crippled by an underlying assumption that the consumption or pollution of our common resources, such as our climate, comes at no cost. As anyone who lived through superstorm Sandy will tell you, the cost is very real, and far from zero. If Congress and the President want to unleash the power of innovation against the national security threat that is climate change, they must first empower the market that drives the bulk of R&D investments in this country. And to do so, they must put a price on carbon.
Ramez Naam is a former Microsoft manager and a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. He is the former CEO of Apex Nanotechnologies and author of the forthcoming book, “The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet”.