The phony breakthrough vs deployment debate

David Roberts is, as usual, bang on in his latest Grist column, lamenting the pointlessness of the debate between those who insist we need more research and development before tackling climate change, and those who say we shouldn't wait. (Roberts is among the best commenters around when it comes to the social and political context of climate change.)

For the amount of attention it gets, you'd think that settling this debate is the crucial first step in developing a policy plan or a political strategy. You'd think the "enough technology" question must be answered before anyone can move forward.

But as I see it, pretty much nothing hinges on the answer. Indeed, I find the whole debate baffling and confounding.

Exactly. Indulge me as I point to something I wrote what seems like an eternity ago (April 2008):

To me, it doesn't logically follow that we have to chose between existing technology and future "breakthroughs." What it does mean is we have so little time that we have to do both.

The only thing left to do is consider why the debate lingers. Roberts includes in his list of reasons why the debate should be moot this point:

3. Even the most enthusiastic fans of innovation acknowledge -- or should acknowledge -- the need for deployment. After all, the California report shows that the state can get to 60 percent reductions with current tools, but only if those tools are immediately and aggressively deployed at scale. The need for large-scale deployment, beginning now, would not disappear even if the much-desired "major advances" in technology suddenly appeared. After all, we're not even close to fully deploying today's technology; if new technology showed up, who's to say we'd deploy that any more effectively? The deployment problem would still have to be solved.

Maybe that's not quite true. I suspect much of the argument in favor of delaying deployment comes from those who aren't been entirely sincere about their motivations. The do-nothing propaganda arms of the right-wing think tanks and their corporate sponsors are a pretty clever bunch, and embracing the need for (mostly government-funded) R&D while rejecting early deployment plays right into the hands of the status quo.


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Deployment now of todays technology is the only viable option, and as Roberts points out, its been deployment of solar which had led to scale and thus lower costs. As costs lower, it makes further development viable, and thus greater efficency/lower unit cost. Its how we ended up with DVD players costing less than a box set...

Production isn't going to be enough, but its a start.

Your last paragraph nails it, and seems to me to explain why the debate isn't phony. Truth is, we don't need a breakthrough, and arguing that we do is just one more in the infinite series of diversions that folks like Lomborg come up with to confuse and prolong the debate. We could do a ton with existing technology, and anything that militates against that plays into the hands of fossil fuel interests.

Tom - If Lomborg et al actually said 'Yes - lets deploy what we have already - lets go for it', that wouldn't be news, that would just be sensible. And what possible value is that to their media careers?

Lomborg's highlights are paid for by his prolonging the debate. Thats why he prolongs the debate.

If anyone still doubts the value of deployment. There's this tasty piece from Bloomberg Finance. Average, not just the best but average, windfarms will be equal or less cost than coal or gas by 2016.