Wired (USA)

We Need an Operation Warp Speed for Climate Change

If the Covid vaccine push has proven anything, it’s that big government works. Time to engage warp speed for climate change.

- By Clive Thompson

early days of the pandemic, a vaccine seemed depressing­ly far off. Historical­ly, the average time to develop a new vaccine was 10 years—far too long for our current emergency. But then something happened to shift things into overdrive: serious government action.

The White House and Congress created Operation Warp Speed and started plowing some $18 billion into it. The Feds authorized huge, multibilli­on-dollar preorders for vaccines, and with such a large guaranteed market, pharmaceut­ical firms moved into high gear. The government also threw its logistical know-how at the hellish challenge of distributi­ng the vaccines. Scientific­ally, of course, we were prepared and lucky. Genetic sequencing was advanced and speedy, and scientists cooperated globally. But it was the critical push from government­s (the US and others) that propelled the fastest vaccine mobilizati­on in history.

It’s also an object lesson for our troubled time: When you’re facing a worldthrea­tening crisis, there’s no substitute for government leadership.

This is worth reflecting on, because we’re surrounded by existentia­l threats. Principall­y, climate change. The scale of the problem is massive.

So is the answer: Operation Warp Speed for climate.

The US government should throw its

The US government could pledge to buy as much clean energy as firms can make. By being a single, huge buyer, the feds could strip away complexity.

muscle behind ramping up a mammoth, rapid rollout of all forms of renewable energy. That includes the ones we already know how to build—like solar and wind— but also experiment­al emerging sources like geothermal and small nuclear, and cutting-edge forms of energy storage or transmissi­on. It’s not as if the Feds have done nothing on renewables; tax credits for solar are partly why adoption is up and the price is down. But compared to the terrifying scale of the problem, the spending has been chump change. For the past 40 years, the US has spent 37 percent more on R&D for fossil fuels than for renewables.

A Climate Warp Speed campaign should invert that ratio. Hell, 10X it! More crucially, the government should become a bulk buyer of renewable energy. The Feds’ vaccine purchase is what jolted pharmaceut­ical companies to move so bloody fast with Covid-19. “They’re not going to make a bunch of vaccine that’s just going to sit on a shelf and nobody’s going to buy,” notes Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security. The virus created the demand; the Feds created the market.

With renewable energy, the US government could pledge to buy as much clean energy as firms can make. One thing that slows cutting-edge deployment­s is that selling energy—closing contracts with many different states, cities, or businesses —is often a glacial, convoluted affair, notes Tim Latimer, CEO of Fervo Energy, a developer of geothermal energy. By being a single, huge buyer of first resort, the Feds could strip away the complexity.

“If the government just said, ‘Look, we’ll buy the first batch’—all of a sudden the scientists get to do what they do best, which is focus on the science and build it with certainty,” Latimer says. “That would catalyze all kinds of new activities.”

The US can offer more than just cash, though. We have logistics. A climate Warp Speed could use the organizati­onal oomph of our government and military to bring clean energy to every federal building nationwide. They could cut through red tape too. (They did this during Operation Warp Speed for vaccine-component firms.) If anything, the Trump administra­tion erred in not going big enough to ramp up vaccine supply. Emergencie­s gotta emergency.

Carbon sequestrat­ion needs the Warp Speed treatment too. Startups and labs have dreamed up prototypic­al hardware for scrubbing carbon from the atmosphere. But it’s a gnarly engineerin­g challenge that needs early support. In the long run, there may well be a robust market for extracted carbon, transforme­d into fuel or as constructi­on materials. But in the short run it’s just an expensive pile o’ extracted carbon. So the Feds should buy it.

My libertaria­n friends, I can hear you protesting: Wait, won’t government spending distort these markets? Can’t free enterprise bootstrap truly world-changing new tech all on its own? Nope. It rarely has. The free market regarded nearly every foundation­al digital tech—in its early years—as a costly boondoggle and had little interest. Transistor­s, integrated circuits? Back in the ’50s and ’60s, the first batches were often janky messes. It took the Department of Defense pouring dough into startup firms like Fairchild Semiconduc­tor to bring costs down and reliabilit­y up, so that 20 years later Woz could craft the Apple I. You’re welcome. (Oh, and if you like deep learning? Thank Canadian taxpayers.)

“It’s always been the symbiosis of public and private,” as Margaret O’mara, historian and author of The Code, a history of Silicon Valley, tells me.

The Biden administra­tion plans to retire the Warp Speed name, but hopefully not the approach. When you’re finally jabbed with the new vaccine, savor our public victory. Then call your member of Congress to demand a Warp Speed for climate. The planet needs the same shot in the arm.

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