Much activist and political rhetoric, even from United Nations conferences, frames solving climate change as a political challenge—as if all the specific technologies needed to fix the problem were already ready to plug in at reasonable costs, with the challenge simply being to convince every person and every country to “do their part.”
We can try for as long as we want to convince India, for example, to “do its part” by adopting more-expensive systems and putting people who only recently got their first access to reliable energy back into poverty. It won’t happen. And India is representative of the entire developing world, which in total currently emits two thirds of greenhouse gases each year. We can’t simply decarbonize ourselves. But nor can we “do our part” and then expect to be able to bully developing countries into decarbonizing the way we can.
The only way to solve climate change by anywhere near scientists’ 2050 target is for the U.S. to treat this as an engineering challenge: replacing all the systems that emit greenhouse gases with ones that don’t, then making these clean systems—many of which are still in development—affordable enough to spread rapidly worldwide.
We can do that through moonshot-style innovation projects: RD+D, policy and public procurement to drive deployment and scale up manufacturing, financing and other measures to bring every needed technology to the “nth of a kind” cost that can outcompete fossil fuels globally.
We need more scientific voices to speak up on climate change because the narrative that it’s predominantly a political issue is both impractical and depressing. It contributes to the widespread climate anxiety today’s youth are feeling, and leads many people to believe we’re doomed.
We’re not doomed. We’re simply misunderstanding what our goal has to be. Leaders in the U.S. must shift their mindset from one focused on an end goal of “decarbonizing ourselves by 2050 and pressuring other countries to do the same” to one of “scaling up every necessary clean system (by much sooner than 2050, so each has time to roll out fully around the world once cheap enough) to make decarbonization affordable worldwide.”
This mindset is the antidote to the voter’s question of “Why should we act massively when China isn’t doing enough?” We can solve pretty much the entire problem through domestic policy. We don’t need China to do much if we do enough. In fact, the more we invest in these projects upfront, the larger share of the economic benefits we’ll reap compared to China.
By communicating about solving climate change as an engineering challenge, we can reassure voters and politicians that it is achievable: if we act boldly enough with massive investments in the next few years, we will solve the entire problem.
But communicating from a technical perspective is also effective in painting a picture for voters of what solving climate change actually looks like. That’s the subject of my new book, The 100% Solution. It lays out five pillars that constitute the physical transformation needed, nearly all driven by lowering the cost of clean systems through manufacturing scale-up. Spoiler: solving climate change means changing systems, not lifestyles. If we can communicate to the average voter the fact that they’ll be able to heat their home the same amount, drive the same amount, fly when necessary—only with different equipment powering those processes—we can make the public (and therefore our political leaders) more comfortable buying into the idea of a massive set of projects.
And finally, by creating a consensus among political and thought leaders about what must physically be achieved and a strategy encompassing the full range of innovation to achieve it, we can make politics the trivial side of solving climate change. Who doesn’t like American innovation? Job creation? Manufacturing booms? Healthier and cheaper equipment? That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about solving climate change: we simply don’t say it often enough.
With more technical voices speaking up, we can create a consensus around what must be achieved and get people comfortable with the (pretty awesome!) world that will be realized through this transformation. And we can give hope to my fellow young people who need to know that it is entirely possible—and although technical, perhaps politically easy—to fully solve climate change.