These minor hypocrisies are more instructive than risible, however, because they point to the heart of the climate problem. Energy consumption is not a compartment of modern life; it is modern life. Whether one travels by limo or rickshaw, there is no Davos without energy of some kind. Likewise, there are no universities worth borrowing money for tuition.
Human ingenuity has created a way of living that is, by nearly every measure, preferable to the past. Billions of us are warm in winter, cool in summer; we eat refrigerated foods cooked on reliable stoves; we drink clean water delivered to our taps by unseen electric pumps. Modern hospitals, homes and hotels are miracles of microchips, each silicon wafer fabricated in an energy-intensive plant, and the roads that connect these miracles hum with commerce and supplies. Freed from scrubbing clothes, wrestling plows and salting our meager stores for winter, our worries — student loans, for example — have moved so far up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that our forebears could not have imagined them. The rest of humankind is eager to climb the same ladder.
Most of this intricately networked modernity — this creation that is, by most measures, a rich blessing — is powered by fossil fuels. There exists no mechanism of government nor instrument of power great enough to switch it off abruptly without unthinkable violence. Those who preach a near-term end to the use of fossil fuels may be philosophically pure in some hermitic sense, but they aren’t serious.
Serious plans for the energy future must take the modern world into account. Humans will continue to demand energy, and for some transitional period of uncertain length, much of that energy will come from fossil fuels. Therefore, climate plans must pursue all high-yield sources of alternative energy — including new and better nuclear reactors. And they must include technologies to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, climate activists are divided on these two points — so deeply that the much-discussed Green New Deal steers clear of both. Nuclear is off the table as a sop to anti-nuke absolutists who assume Chernobyl and Fukushima are the best we can do. Devices to capture carbon are verboten because they might extend the life span of fossil fuels. Climate purists would rather drown pristine than swim compromised.
The good news, such as it is, comes from private investors, philanthropies and government agencies that support the broadest possible array of promising technologies. Microsoft, one of the world’s first trillion-dollar corporations, recently announced plans to put $1 billion into carbon-capture R&D. The fund is part of a corporate commitment to eliminate all carbon dioxide emissions from the company’s operations and supply chain — and then remove and store an amount of carbon from the atmosphere equal to all of Microsoft’s emissions since the firm was founded in 1975.
Below the skin of this commitment lies the muscle of the free market. Microsoft sees good money to be made by developers of climate-friendly technologies and by providers of carbon-neutral goods and services. Nothing would do more for the tattered credibility of market capitalism than for private investors to show that sustainability doesn’t have to mean the end of human progress. It can be the next step up the ladder, richly rewarding for those who find solutions.
Microsoft’s co-founder and technology adviser, Bill Gates, is also a leading investor in so-called Generation IV nuclear technology. Safer and more efficient than existing light-water-cooled reactors, the nuclear plants of tomorrow will generate more energy while producing less waste. They’ll also have the added benefit of creating hydrogen on a large scale — an essential step in bringing hydrogen-powered cars from test tracks to driveways around the world.
No single investment or corporate portfolio, no matter how large, will by itself answer the challenge of a green-energy future. No government, no matter how active, can dictate all the innovations we’ll need. The fleeting hypocrisy of the Davos carbon warriors can be forgotten, then, if they put their money and influence behind meaningful, long-term, well-funded plans. We need more people doing more experiments of more kinds in more places.
As for the candidates on the campaign trail: The job of a leader is to point in an inspiring direction and mark the path that will take us there. Arguably, the Green New Deal is the right direction. But the route is incomplete. The time has come to get serious.
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