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Winning the war on climate change will require a technocratic revolution.

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Even then, victory is not guaranteed:

As the 19th century entered its final decade, the War of Currents was nearing its peak. On one side of this war was Thomas Edison, who had invested heavily in direct-current (DC) technology. Tesla and Westinghouse backed alternating-current (AC), which they believed (correctly) to be more efficient.

In the spring of 1891, a seemingly small event in Telluride, Colorado, decisively turned the tide in favor of AC. The Ames hydroelectric-power plant, financed by mining entrepreneur L. L. Nunn, and built around equipment supplied by Westinghouse, began transmitting AC power to Nunn’s gold-mining operations 2.6 miles away.

It was the first successful demonstration of AC’s efficiency advantages over long distances, and it led to the unveiling of AC at the 1893 Chicago World Fair, followed by Westinghouse winning the contract to build an AC-based power plant at Niagara falls. The rest is history. Edison lost the plot, and AC came to dominate the story of electricity.

The victory of AC over DC, in the midst of a noisy debate fueled as much by misinformation and propaganda as by science, is the sort of outcome under uncertainty that markets excel at delivering.

In 2015, the climate-change debate is where the War of Currents was in 1893. The December climate convention in Paris, COP 21, is shaping up to be the most significant since Kyoto in 1997. It might well do for clean-energy technologies what the Chicago World Fair did for electricity. It might be an inflection point.

Except this time around, the drama centers on government and UN technocrats rather than technologists and private investors. Rather than trusting market serendipity, climate experts are hoping that strong regulatory forcing combined with aggressive government investment in energy R&D will do the trick. In the November issue of The AtlanticBill Gates makes a persuasive case for just this approach. Read more.

Is Gates right that this dual-pronged attack is necessary? Probably. Can it work? There’s a slim chance.


Of the previous six energy revolutions of comparable magnitude—wind, water, coal, oil, electricity, and nuclear—only nuclear power had anywhere near the same level of early-stage technocratic shaping that we are contemplating. Among technological revolutions outside the energy sector, only space exploration, nuclear-weapons technology, and computing technology have had similar levels of bureaucratic direction.

None of these are true comparables, however, for one critical reason. In each historical case, the revolution was highly focused on a single core technology rather than a broad portfolio of technologies, and a managed transition of infrastructure at civilization scale. In the case of aerospace and computing technologies, the comparison is even weaker: Those sectors enjoyed several decades of organic evolution driven primarily by inventors, private investors, and market forces before technocrats got involved.

Does this mean... we're gonna have to science the shit out of it? :p

No, if only it were that easy. The author is proposing that at this moment, when the American people are easily at their lowest ebb of trust in the concept of bureaucracy (esp government bureaucracy) or scientific expertise EVER... somehow we will pull together in a herculean single-minded effort the likes of which the world has never seen, like WWII but much bigger... on behalf of "preventing massive misery in parts of the world (and periods of the future) that did not cause the problem". Uncle Sam wants YOU to give up your pickup truck and suburban house to save kids in Bangladesh! Um... yeah.

Halibutboy, you're right. There's no way we're going to convince our government to do the right thing when our government can't even elect a Speaker of the House.

What's that you told me Joyce? That 35% of Americans don't even think climate change exists??

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