Ray Kurzweil might be right. It could very well be that Moore’s law can be applied to all forms of technology, and within a couple of decades clean, renewable forms of power production will be so cheap they will have replaced all fossil fuels. Hey, it could happen. Maybe even it’s not just possible, but probable. Kurweil calls it the law of accelerating returns:
Today, solar is still more expensive than fossil fuels, and in most situations it still needs subsidies or special circumstances, but the costs are coming down rapidly — we are only a few years away from parity. And then it’s going to keep coming down, and people will be gravitating towards solar, even if they don’t care at all about the environment, because of the economics.
So right now it’s at half a percent of the world’s energy. People tend to dismiss technologies when they are half a percent of the solution. But doubling every two years means it’s only eight more doublings before it meets a hundred percent of the world’s energy needs. So that’s 16 years. We will increase our use of electricity during that period, so add another couple of doublings: In 20 years we’ll be meeting all of our energy needs with solar, based on this trend which has already been under way for 20 years. (Climate Desk)
Even if the schedule is a little off, and we don’t manage to curtail our fossil fuel emissions before triggering a runaway greenhouse effect, it will be still be possible to geoengineer our way back to safe levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane, and cool the planet back down, and return oceanic pH to normal levels. So says Kurzweil.
But there’s also at least a reasonable chance that his faith in technology is misplaced, that he hasn’t anticipated some interruption that will throw his predictions out of whack, and things won’t work out the way he foresees. Is it wise to base our entire strategy of dealing with the most serious public policy challenge of our time on the assumption that the cost of solar technology will continue to fall by 50% every two years? It that the kind of policy path we want to take?
Or do we want to err on the side of caution, and assume that if the business of emitting carbon as usual continues, the planet could become significantly less hospitable to civilization? Which assumption makes more sense?
I hope Kurzweil’s right. Most criticism aimed at the guy tends to involve his penchant of untried longevity therapy that, while a bit on the loony side, are more ad hominem than factual, and have little to do with the fundamental question of whether we are indeed headed for an AI-bio-nano singularity or not. And on that issue, his predictions have proved remarkably accurate in the past. But I also hope that someone will offer me a six-figure, full-time job to blog about climate change. And I’m not going to bet my mortgage on that hope, either.