Need for focus on Climate Change, Innovation by Presidential Candidates

Given the historic U.S. Presidential election that is now only hours away, I thought it appropriate to take a cursory look at how Senators John McCain and Barack Obama view invention, entrepreneurship, and specifically innovations that are vital to helping our society address the most pressing challenge of our time: climate change. What do I mean by climate change? Let’s go with the most straightforward definition: changes in the planet’s average temperatures as a result of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions. CO2 is one of the “greenhouse” gases.  

Both candidates, with the exception of CO2 trading which sometimes involves other countries, approach climate change from a unilateral and mostly economic perspective. True, a U.S. environmental technology revolution would lead to more companies and jobs operating from home, in turn slowing climate change overall. However, impact on climate change would depend on other countries’ adaptation of U.S. technologies. 

As a bit of background, in the past we responded to calls to unite the country in support of America in the space race (Sputnik) and the development of the atom bomb (the Manhattan Project). A similar call now would be helpful in combating climate change on some levels and would undoubtedly lead to the development of technologies and companies, but what we really need is a multilateral approach that engages nearly everyone on the same side working for the same outcome: preventing climate change. Imagine a world in which all nations collaboratively ramp-up their research & development in these industries – a global sustainable innovation initiative. This is not the time to go it alone. This is not the time – even post Wall Street bailout – to put the economy before innovations that could save the planet.  

Let’s take a quick look at what Obama’s perspective is in regards to innovation, technology, entrepreneurship, and the environment... 

Obama believes that innovation will come from large-scale investment ($150B over 10 years from the proceeds of a Carbon auction) in the private sector. That’s certainly reasonable. But what is the nature of this investment? Research into alternative fuels, more fuel-efficient vehicles and carbon sequestration, retooling of manufacturing facilities, retraining the existing manufacturing workforce and returning war veterans for green jobs, and introducing youth to potential careers in home weatherization and energy efficiency are all included.  

This plan has the potential to bring together people from diverse backgrounds to work on the common challenge of climate change. Machinists, PhD’s, and youth just out of high school could all be part of the solution. I can even see our education system – which I’ll discuss in subsequent posts – charged with producing youth with a global perspective and the tools to creatively tackle real-world problems. Diverse experiences lead to diverse ways of thinking and unique approaches to challenges. If only it involved people globally, like climate change. 

At the Lemelson-MIT Program we recognize that transgressive thinking (see page nine of our NSF-sponsored Report of the Committee for Study of Invention) – creatively applying what you know about field x to a problem in field n - can be the root which allows one to jump to an invention and leads to innovation. Consider the transgressive thinking behind the Dyson® vacuum (the phenomenon of centrifugal force applied to a household appliance) or James McLurkin’s robotic swarm (bee behavior programmed into robots which could someday explore Mars.) These innovations show that level of education is not what limits creativity or inventiveness, rather it is one’s ability to think ”out of the box”.  

While Obama’s overall portfolio to combat climate change is impressive, in the next twenty-five years the scale needed to meet our energy demands and reduce the amount of CO2 currently being released goes far beyond our borders. Even at the most efficient output levels – above the best results scientists have achieved in the lab – and most favorable Carbon sequestration results, we will not be able to cost-effectively generate enough clean energy from renewable sources (solar, wind, water, geothermal, nuclear, and bio-fuels) to slow our CO2 emissions without a ridiculous ramp-up that would make Donald Trump quake in his boots.

If we wanted 3% of our energy to come from bio-fuels, for example, we would need to dedicate an area roughly equivalent to some of our larger states to be a pool of algae, and build a new Olympic size swimming pool of algae every second until 2033. If we wanted nuclear power to provide 20% of our energy we would have to build one nuclear power plant every week for the next twenty-five years.   

Now let’s move-on to an overview of John McCain’s take on innovation, technology, entrepreneurship, and the environment... Like Obama, McCain is focused on the U.S. and plans to use domestic market mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, spur innovation and strengthen the U.S. economy – permit auction proceeds will fund research, development, and deployment of a diverse portfolio of U.S.-focused technology initiatives ranging from carbon capture and sequestration, to nuclear power, to battery development. Again, well-intentioned. McCain’s and Obama’s plans are fairly similar, though McCain seems to have forgotten one of the most important resources for combating climate change: people. I must have missed McCain’s mention of retraining the workforce and a green corps.    

Obama introduces the idea of a Global Energy Forum to bring together the world’s worst CO2 emitters to address global energy and environmental issues – which could be the role of the U.N. – McCain consistently talks about securing our country’s energy future. In my mind this conjures-up the image of U.S. soldiers patrolling oil fields far from home.    

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention vehicle fuel-efficiency. While Obama has issued an 150 mpg goal for “made in the USA” plug-in hybrids by 2015 and the folks at X-Prize recently launched a 100 mpg challenge, I wonder if either is setting the bar high enough. Granted we’re also talking infrastructural changes, but didn’t a French automotive company, Citroen, manufacture a car in the 1940’s that got ~78 mpg?  

We need to reduce our energy demands (which will reduce CO2 emissions and slow climate change) and speed-up collaborative, global innovation or risk massive species loss and more serious water shortages than we’re already facing. Which of our candidates can most readily adapt his approach to be more successful in my mind? I know who I’m voting for tomorrow, do you?  

(special thanks to SG for his energy scaling insights and humor)

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