Capitalism is already developing better energy technologies, which are the counter argument to Naomi Klein’s call for revolution
Naomi Klein is once again calling for “radical” political change to respond to climate challenges, arguing in a new Salon interview that only “radical options” are left. Klein is wrong. And she’s wrong because she ignores the most radical option of all: technology change.
Klein is the celebrity author and eco-activist whose recent book, This Changes Everything, argues that humans and their neoliberal market economies have so damaged the environment – witness climate change and global warming – and we have acted so late that the only course of action is to completely revamp our political and economic systems.
Here’s an excerpt from the Salon interview:
Change or be changed, right? And what we mean by that is that climate change, if we don’t change course, if we don’t change our political and economic system, is going to change everything about our physical world. And that is what climate scientists are telling us when they say business as usual leads to three to four degrees Celsius of warming. That’s the road we are on. We can get off that road, but we’re now so far along it, we’ve put off the crucial policies for so long, that now we can’t do it gradually. We have to swerve, right? And swerving requires such a radical departure from the kind of political and economic system we have right now that we pretty much have to change everything.
The book and the interview are a call to revolution, which is why Klein’s ideas demand an answer and plenty of push back.
For this column, let’s focus on the biggest flaw in her argument, that the world is still on a “business as usual” course.
There is a very good argument to be made that the global economy has already embarked upon a new course. And I don’t mean the climate change rodeo represented by the COP 21 conference in Paris a few months ago.
I mean technology change.
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There is no doubt a new generation of energy technologies is upon us. In fact, I would argue the global economy is undergoing an epochal transition from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy and the electrification of our societies.
New technologies are transforming – or are set to transform – just about every industry, including the two main components of climate change, electricity generation and transportation.
And like most historical technology changes, the old and new technologies will co-exist for decades. For how long, in the case of energy?
Prof. Vaclav Smil, Bill Gates’ favorite author and an eminent energy scholar, says energy transitions are very slow. Change usually occurs in energy systems at around three per cent a year, which makes it difficult to estimate how long transforming the global energy system will take.
More advanced economies – like the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan – will probably transition more quickly. While China, Asia, Russia and other less developed economies will take much longer.
My best guess is around 100 years. A full century for new energy technologies to diffuse throughout the global economy and displace older, less efficient technologies.
But even that guess relies upon the assumption that critical technologies – like more energy dense batteries to make electric vehicles practical – will advance at a steady pace.
What if they don’t?
But what if they do? I would argue that the history of technology suggests the likelihood of success is far greater than the likelihood of failure.
However uncertain the transition from fossil fuels to new energy technologies may look when standing at the beginning of the journey, as modern nations are, there is no doubt the process has begun.
There are many technologies undergoing rapid change – e.g. solar, advanced nuclear – and cost curves are dropping rapidly, while efficiencies and productivity are rising just as fast. Behind the scene, supporting and ancillary technologies – e.g. utility-scale battery storage – are developing just as fast.
How does all this new technology figure into an alternative to Naomi Klein’s call to overthrow existing economic and political structures?
Well, if we are patient with the process of technological change already underway, and diligent in creating the policy framework needed to allow the new energy technologies to develop at a sustainable rate, eventually humankind will arrive at the very destination Klein is hurrying toward.
An environmentally sustainable global ecosystem.
Just not in a hurry. Probably well into the 22nd century.
The central question in the immediate future, as we contemplate how the world uses energy and how we respond to climate change, is this: Do we want revolution or evolution?
Naomi Klein has cast her vote. And I think she’s wrong.