Climate Change: Why Fund Technology When You Can Fund Communications?

Climate Change Heroes? Dimensional Energy are finalists in the $20M NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. They are developing a process for artificial photosynthesis.  See  this link. 


Thanks to Matthew for bringing up the bigger picture of climate change, which is relevant to some of our discussions here. The other point of this post is to show that folks like us can also write op-eds albeit for local newspapers, and get our own voices and perspectives out  in the public sphere.

It’s always a mystery to me why people with lots of money don’t simply fund solving the problems, instead of funding complaining about how bad the problems are, or complaining that other people won’t solve them. It makes you wonder if they are really interested in solving the problem, or whether other options have not been presented.  Or maybe big environmental funders aren’t comfortable with technology development and transfer?  Or they think that renewables are all the technology that we need (possibly convinced by corporate solar and wind interests)? That’s not so clear from watching snowplows, farm equipment, gas stoves and furnaces, nor the difference between France and Germany’s carbon production.

The Colorado Springs Gazette published an op-ed I wrote last week, linked here.  It follows the same logic as the discussion we’ve been having.. it’s really pretty simple. The way to stop using fossil fuels is to develop equally useful other fuels that are cheaper or use CCS (carbon capture and storage) and/or BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage).  Who is likely to do this? Well er… engineers and inventors and so on.  So it would be simple to take all the science bucks currently directed at projecting the future to the gnat’s eyebrow with unknown accuracy, and give them over to a concerted and organized Manhattan or Apollo project.  If we had left those past efforts to random investigator- initiated research, we would potentially have had many designs for exteriors but no propulsion systems. Our current technology development process is kind of a technology potluck with no feedback from the guests.   In fact, perhaps we need more of a Land Grant model in which Low Carbon Extension fills the role of communicating between technology developers and users.

If we look at the amount of money private foundations put into climate communications compared to technologies, we can see that what folks pay for is what they get.  Lots of words and not so much technology.  In fact, for the Manhattan Project comparison. it would be as if they spent lots of money decrying the bad things our enemies did in WWII, but no money on actually fighting them. I later found out that more wise persons had come up with idea of a Green Apollo Project. From this article in the Guardian on an international effort:

Lord Richard Layard, an economist at the London School of Economics and member of the Apollo group, said it was barely believable that the world only spent 2% of its R&D money on its “most pressing problem” of climate change and clean energy. He said: “We do not think this problem can be conquered unless we reduce the cost of renewable energy below the cost of dirty energy.”

And the idea goes back at least to 1998 (here).  Of course, those tend to focus on development of technology (tends to be electric generation) and not so much transfer and adoption.

On the other hand…

Check out this analysis of major environmental grant funding by Matthew Nisbet of Northwestern University (I couldn’t reproduce the chart, but this is the caption)

“Based on analysis of 2,502 publicly reported grants available as of Spring/Summer 2016 which were distributed between 2011 and 2015 by 19 major environmental grantmakers totaling $556,678,469.  Low-carbon energy technologies include funding to make natural gas generation cleaner/safer ($8.4 million); to evaluate carbon capture and storage ($1.3 million); to promote R&D spending ($573,000), and the role of government in fostering innovation ($100,000). No grants were focused on promoting nuclear energy, though $175,000 in grants were devoted to opposing nuclear energy for cost and safety reasons.”

My own alma mater, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, runs a Yale Climate Communication with funding from the Grantham Foundation for the environment.  Here’s a link.  It seems like the logic is that if you can change public opinion, good environmental things will happen.  It seems to me that that goodwill still needs to be translated into a variety of technologies, if we want heat and food, and without undue impacts on poorer people and countries.  And if those technologies were cheaper and better for the environment, then you wouldn’t actually need massive PR campaigns. Oh, well.


3 thoughts on “Climate Change: Why Fund Technology When You Can Fund Communications?”

  1. Next thing you know, you’ll be running for office.

    I would like to view the Green New Deal as something that will help get us to a Manhattan Project (or Apollo) for climate change. ( But it’s much harder to get there when you’ve got the opposition of a fossil fuels industry with a lot of control over government (and allies like Faux). Nobody was fighting the bomb or the moonshot like they are fighting decarbonization. This is what makes them the villain.

    Why the emphasis on funding “communications?” That is where they have drawn the battle lines – on whether and how much we should be worried about climate change. Once we all agree on the climate war in the way we agreed on WW-II, we can shift more into trying to win it (if it’s not too late).

  2. I don’t agree that trying to do a lot of things at once, many of which don’t directly have to do with climate change, will bring us closer to doing the one really hard thing- which is to get off fossil fuels and still have agriculture, transportation and light and heat. If climate scientists (for example) would lobby NSF to transfer their research funding to technology development, you wouldn’t need to convince the fossil fuel industry- or anyone else for that matter.

    I’m a big believer in states as incubators for policy experiments. States like California have been leading the way re climate change, and yet not getting as far as people might like .. I don’t know that you can blame that on the O&G industry. Perhaps the fact that people with the right intentions still need the darn technology to be successful at decarbonizing.

    The key narrative that some people have is “if you believe in climate change, then you agree to a certain policy mix. If you don’t agree with that policy mix, then you are denier, and should lose your scientist card.” But that narrative is not true!

    Many of us scientists believe in climate change but may not agree with The Big Narrative about research foci, technology development, and a variety of other topics. For example, I would tend not to put money into BECCS. But the IPPC put it in their scenarios. There is also controversy over nuclear.

    We all get to have our own ideas about the best strategies with so many unknowns. I like the “no regrets” strategy.
    Unfortunately, the “you’re with us or you’re against us” attitude of some climate scientists cuts off debate over very real options, which is exactly what I was trained as a scientist to help people do.. use science and technology to open up their options.


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