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Yes, We Really Can Save The Earth

Joe Conason on

Anyone who lives in the world of scientific reality -- which we all do, although some like to pretend we don't -- may feel dejected these days by the inevitability of catastrophic climate change. For years now, the news about the fate of the Earth (and the living things that inhabit our planet) has grown increasingly grim, with doomsday projected to arrive sometime before the end of this century.

The more we try to do the right thing as consumers and voters, the less it seems to matter. Hurricanes, flash floods, wildfires and lethal heat waves are impossible to ignore, unlike the warnings of scientists that most of us have tuned out for decades. Hopes for reversing or even delaying the worst global impacts fade as world powers quarrel and stall, while consistently failing to meet climate objectives.

Until now, that is.

Last week, a team of economists affiliated with Oxford University and the Institute for New Economic Thinking revealed what may be the single most important insight of our time -- and the best news about climate in a long time. "Empirically grounded technology forecasts and the energy transition" is the admittedly dull-sounding title of their new paper, but its findings should relieve the depression of climate realists -- and activate everyone to fight for the future.

What the Oxford paper shows is that the costs of renewable energy technologies such as solar photovoltaics, wind power, hydrogen power and electric batteries are continuing to decline exponentially, while the cost of dirty fossil fuels remains static. As a matter of economics, this means that the more swiftly we move from dirty energy to clean, the more we can save, with a conservative estimate in the tens of trillions of dollars. But more importantly, as a matter of environmental security, this also means that we can make that transition far more swiftly than had been predicted even under the most optimistic scenarios.

The significance of these findings -- based on exhaustive analysis of immense amounts of data on energy and manufacturing -- is hard to exaggerate. Progress toward a livable world has been delayed by the perception among politicians and policymakers that the transition will be very expensive, cost many jobs and prove difficult to finance, especially in the developing world.

Actually, the opposite is true. We can afford to move swiftly and deliberately toward a decarbonized world economy -- and we can't afford not to.

The fundamental insight of the Oxford analysis is based on two principles of modern economics that are well understood. The first is Moore's Law, which demonstrated that the cost of technologies such as computer chips dropped exponentially as their capacities expanded. Renewable energy technologies have followed that same trajectory, with costs dropping 10% every year and solar electricity "becoming 2,000 times cheaper since its first commercial use" in 1958. The second principle is Wright's Law, better known as "the learning curve," which showed that experience provides reliable improvement (and cost declines) in technologies like solar and wind -- but not in fossil fuels.

 

If we just allow economic forces to prevail -- without the subsidies and other advantages government has lavished on the oil and gas industry for the past century -- then renewable technologies will take over because they are becoming cheaper every day. But we can't simply wait for that to happen, and we will have to push hard against the forces that would burn the world for profit.

Instead of waiting, as the authors of the Oxford study suggest, we must aggressively pursue the tax and infrastructure policies that will enable the "fast transition" scenario they envision -- including the construction of smart electric grids, the encouragement of electric vehicles and the other aspects of President Joe Biden's climate plan. Combined with wise changes in agriculture and other climate policies, the savings in energy costs will augment the creation of millions of new jobs, improve public health by drastically reducing pollution and prevent the most disastrous consequences of global warming.

That process will begin with passage of the president's Build Back Better legislation -- which even at a cost of $3.5 trillion over 10 years will prove to be an enormous bargain.

We can preserve the planet and the future of generations to come. The technological and economic trends are favorable; the wind is literally at our back. All we need now is the will to save ourselves and our children.

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To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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