You don’t have to be a climate scientist these days to know that the climate has problems. You just have to step outside.
The United States is now enduring its warmest year on record, and the 13 warmest years for the entire planet have all occurred since 1998, according to data that stretches back to 1880. No one day’s weather can be tied to global warming, of course, but more than a decade’s worth of changing weather surely can be, scientists say. Meanwhile, the country often seems to be moving further away from doing something about climate change, with the issue having all but fallen out of the national debate.
Behind the scenes, however, a somewhat different story is starting to emerge — one that offers reason for optimism to anyone worried about the planet. The world’s largest economies may now be in the process of creating a climate-change response that does not depend on the politically painful process of raising the price of dirty energy. The response is not guaranteed to work, given the scale of the problem. But the early successes have been notable.
Over the last several years, the governments of the United States, Europe and China have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on clean-energy research and deployment. And despite some high-profile flops, like ethanol and Solyndra, the investments seem to be succeeding more than they are failing.
The price of solar and wind power have both fallen sharply in the last few years. This country’s largest wind farm, sprawling across eastern Oregon, is scheduled to open next month. Already, the world uses vastly more alternative energy than experts predicted only a decade ago.
Even natural gas, a hotly debated topic among climate experts, helps make the point. Thanks in part to earlier government investments, energy companies have been able to extract much more natural gas than once seemed possible. The use of natural gas to generate electricity — far from perfectly clean but less carbon-intensive than coal use — has jumped 25 percent since 2008, while prices have fallen more than 80 percent. Natural gas now generates as much electricity as coal in the United States, which would have been unthinkable not long ago.
The successes make it possible at least to fathom a transition to clean energy that does not involve putting a price on carbon — either through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program that requires licenses for emissions. It was exactly such a program, supported by both Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 campaign, that died in Congress in 2010 and is now opposed by almost all Congressional Republicans and some coal-state and oil-state Democrats.
To describe the two approaches is to underline their political differences. A cap-and-trade program sets out to make the energy we use more expensive. An investment program aims to make alternative energy less expensive.
Most scientists and economists, to be sure, think the best chance for success involves both strategies: if dirty energy remains as cheap as it is today, clean energy will have a much longer road to travel. And even an investment-only strategy is not guaranteed to continue. The clean-energy spending in Mr. Obama’s 2009 stimulus package has largely expired, while several older programs are scheduled to lapse as early as Dec. 31. In the current political and fiscal atmosphere, their renewal is far from assured.
Still, the clean-energy push has been successful enough to leave many climate advocates believing it is the single best hope for preventing even hotter summers, more droughts and bigger brush fires. “Carbon pricing is going to have an uphill climb in the U.S. for the foreseeable future,” says Robert N. Stavins, a Harvard economist who is a leading advocate for such pricing, “so it does make sense to think about other things.”
Those others things, in the simplest terms, are policies intended to help find a breakthrough technology that can power the economy without heating the planet. “Our best hope,” says Benjamin H. Strauss, a scientist who is the chief operating officer of Climate Central, a research group, “is some kind of disruptive technology that takes off on its own, the way the Internet and the fax took off.”
Governments have played a crucial role in financing many of the most important technological inventions of the past century. That’s no coincidence: Basic research is often unprofitable. It involves too much failure, and an inventor typically captures only a tiny slice of the profits that flow from a discovery.
Although government officials make mistakes when choosing among nascent technologies, one success can outweigh many failures. Washington-financed research has made possible semiconductors, radar, the Internet, the radio, the jet engine and many medical advances, including penicillin. The two countries that have made the most progress in reducing carbon emissions, France and Sweden, have done so largely by supporting nuclear and hydropower, notes Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, Calif.
The story of shale gas, a form of natural gas, is typical, in that it depends on both private-sector ingenuity and public-sector support. Halliburton first figured out how to recover natural gas from limestone deposits at a field in Kansas in 1947. But its technique proved ineffective in extracting gas from shale rock. For decades, geologists remained skeptical that the enormous amounts of gas in shale formation could ever be extracted.
“You’re using our retirement money on something that’s no good,” Dan Steward, a geologist at Mitchell Energy, the company that eventually succeeded, recalled hearing from colleagues. Mitchell Energy, however, kept attacking the problem, with help from both government funds and computer mapping that came from a federal laboratory.
Solar and wind power today fall into a category that natural gas once did: for all their promise, they cannot compete on a mass scale with existing energy sources. Wind electricity costs between 15 percent and 25 percent more than standard electricity. Solar power often costs more than twice as much.
Federal subsidies can help close the gap. More important, they can finance research that may lead to a technological leap that brings down their costs.
In relative terms, the sums for clean-energy research that many scientists and economists support are not huge. A politically diverse group of experts recently set a target of $25 billion a year in federal spending on research and development (some of which could come from phasing out ineffective programs). That amount is slightly below the budget of the National Institutes of Health and only 3 percent as large as the Social Security budget. Other experts put the ideal figure closer to $50 billion.
At the recent peak, in 2009, all federal spending on clean energy — including money for research and subsidies for households and businesses — amounted to $44 billion. This year, Washington will spend about $16 billion. The scheduled expiration of a tax credit for wind, originally signed by the first President George Bush in 1992, would help reduce the total to $14 billion next year, and current law has it continuing to fall in 2014.
The combination of these expirations, which Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution calls a major, little-appreciated policy shift, and the latest temperature readings have not exactly left climate scientists brimming with cheer. This summer’s drought has affected as much of the country as the Dust Bowl drought. Large patches of Colorado have burned. Atlanta has recorded its hottest day in history this year. Dallas endured 40 straight days above 100 degrees last July and August — and this year so far has been even hotter than last year.
On the other hand, the weather has made the climate harder to ignore. And when you look closer, there are some reasons for hope — tentative, but full of potential — hiding beneath the surface.
David Leonhardt is the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times.