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Saving the World Ain't Cheap

Where’s The Beef?write

In recent years, conservatives have talked the talk of technology innovation, but have not, unfortunately, backed it up with strong support for large public investments in clean energy. Republican presidential front-runners, from John McCain to Mitt Romney to Mike Huckabee, have acknowledged the importance of doing something about global warming, but they all lack plans for major public investment in technology. For this reason, conservatives like Gingrich and Maple should specify the size for their clean energy investment proposal, as well as how it should be structured to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. Will they join America's leading energy experts and scientists in calling for an annual investment between $30 and $80 billion for technology innovation and infrastructure? Do they support a modest price on carbon dioxide to help pay for it? And do they support measures to ensure that taxpayer money is spent wisely and not wasted through a pork-driven Congressional appropriations process?

Gingrich and Maple suggest a $1 billion prize. We believe there is an important role to be played by prize contests for stimulating America's entrepreneurial sprit. But we could not have built the railroads and the highways, put a man on the moon, or unleashed the computer and Internet revolutions through prize money alone.

To make the clean energy revolution a reality, we'll need massive investments in clean energy innovation and infrastructure--investments that, a consensus of climate scientists and energy policy experts agree, the private sector either cannot or will not make without government leadership.

Last month, a group of scientists and experts, including several Nobel laureates, sent an open letter to presidential candidates and members of Congress calling for a minimum annual investment of $30 billion for technology innovation and infrastructure. Other energy experts writing in the journal Nature recently called for an investment on the order of $80 billion a year, which is what we spend on military R&D annually.

The investment we are calling for would go beyond research and development. A large outlay should go towards demonstration, deployment, and outright government procurement of new technologies, the last of which was critical to buying down the price of microchips in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and may be a good solution to lowering the price of solar panels now. Some of this money should be spent on the infrastructure necessary to expand existing technologies like solar and wind power, which currently face obstacles due to their intermittent nature. Other investments should be made in energy science and engineering, from the high school to post-graduate levels. Finally, we need to invest substantially in helping promising technologies cross the "valley of death" to achieve widespread use and commercialization.

These strategic investments in America's economic development and national security need to be insulated from pork-barrel congressional politics. What's needed is a transparent process to select and support projects based on their merits. The goal should not be to subsidize clean energy in perpetuity but rather to make the kinds of investments that ultimately bring the real cost of clean energy below that of fossil fuels.

Finally, we need either emissions regulations or a carbon tax that results in a modest price for emitting carbon dioxide. Policymakers should set the level high enough to speed the adoption of conservation, efficiency, and new technologies, but not so high as to slow the economy. Money raised either from auctioning pollution allowances, or from a modest fee on carbon dioxide, could easily generate the $30 to $80 billion per year that we need for these investments.

In response to Break Through, A Contract with the Earth, and other new books on global warming, there has been much talk of the possibility of a new center, or "third way," on climate. But for a third way to become a serious alternative to the regulation-centered approach advocated by the national environmental lobby, conservatives must now offer an alternative that consists of serious technology policy and the money to back it up. You can’t solve a problem of this magnitude on the cheap.

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus are the authors of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, and co-founders of the Breakthrough Institute.

(Tomorrow: National Review's Jonathan Adler responds.)

By Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus