Want to Save the Earth? We Need a Lot More Elon Musks.
If I am brutally honest, there is only one motto I would give to the movement to stem climate change after the Glasgow summit: “Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.”
On the one hand, liberal greens will tell you that the world is ending — but that we must not use nuclear power, an abundant source of clean energy, to stave it off. On the other hand, conservative greens will tell you that the world is ending, but that we can’t burden people with a carbon tax or a gasoline tax to slow global warming.
On a third hand, suburban greens will tell you that the world is ending, but that they don’t want any windmills, solar farms or high-speed rail lines in their backyards.
On a fourth hand, most of today’s leaders will tell you that the world is ending, so at Glasgow they’ve all decided to go out on a limb and commit their successors’ successor to deliver emissions-free electricity by 2030, 2040 or 2050 — any date that doesn’t require them to ask their citizens to do anything painful today.
This is not serious —not when you’re talking about reversing all the ways that we have destabilized Earth’s systems, from ice caps and ocean currents to coral reefs and tropical forests to the density of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is pretend.
Serious was how we responded to Covid-19, when it really did feel like the world economy was ending: We fought back with the only tools we have that are as big and powerful as Mother Nature — Father Profit and New Tech.
We combined innovative biotech firms — like Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and some small start-ups — with today’s massive computing power and a giant market demand signal, and what did we get? In a little over a year after first being locked down by the virus, I had an effective mRNA vaccine against Covid-19 in my body — followed by a booster!
That was an amazing feat of biotechnology and computerized logistics to develop and deliver vaccines. And I hope the scientists, employees and shareholders of those vaccine innovators make boatloads of money — because it will incentivize others to apply a similar formula to stem climate change.
I have nothing against Glasgow. I admire those leaders who are trying to inspire the world to cut CO2 emissions, preserve biodiversity and hold each other to account. But we will not decarbonize the global economy with a lowest-common-denominator action plan of 195 countries. Not possible.
We will get there only when Father Profit and risk-taking entrepreneurs produce transformative technologies that enable ordinary people to have extraordinary impacts on our climate without sacrificing much — by just being good consumers of these new technologies.
In short: we need a few more Greta Thunbergs and a lot more Elon Musks. That is, more risk-taking innovators converting basic science into tools yet to be imagined to protect the planet for a generation yet to be born.
The good news — it’s happening. Two examples:
The first is Planet.com, which I alluded to briefly in last week’s column from Glasgow. Founded in 2010 by three former NASA scientists based in San Francisco, Planet has some 200 earth-imaging satellites in orbit, most the size of a loaf of bread, to observe the entire global land mass every 24 hours in high resolution — in order to make the changes unfolding on the ground “visible, accessible and actionable.” No government in the world has this capacity.
With these new deep transparency tools we can begin to reshape capitalism. For years, the rules and incentives of capitalism enabled oil and coal companies to extract fossil fuels — and industries to use them — without paying the true cost of the damage they were causing. That was easy to do because nature was hard to value; destruction was often hard to see in real time; and consumers had no tools to react. They had to wait for the courts.
“Capitalism has produced enormous wealth, but in part that’s because it has been able to treat nature as self-replenishing, hyper-abundant and free,” explained Andrew Zolli, Planet’s chief impact officer.
That will not be so easy anymore. Satellites are now “enabling us to put natural capital on every company and every country’s balance sheet,’’ so it will not take account of just your business profits and losses, “but all of your impacts’’ on the environment as well, Will Marshall, one of Planet’s three co-founders and its C.E.O., said to me.
Planet’s satellites plus AI, Marshall explained, can track a country’s trees, farmlands, coral reefs, coastal mangroves and smokestack emissions with incredible precision — down to three meters — and provide transparency to show which trees are being illegally logged by whom and whose factories are violating their carbon dioxide emissions promises.
That data can then be used — in theory — to trigger consumer boycotts, spread through social networks, against the government or the food or mining company doing the damage, or it can stimulate foreign aid or investment in the country or community protecting its natural resources.
For instance, Planet, with a group of scientific and philanthropic partners, has helped create a detailed map — the Allen Coral Atlas — of all the world’s remaining coral reefs. The Philippines is using the atlas’s data about sea grass to plan nine new marine-protected areas throughout the country. At the same time, in a partnership paid by Norway, Planet is tracking deforestation in 64 tropical rainforest countries, including Brazil. Using Planet’s pinpoint accuracy, the Brazilian government has vastly increased the number of cease-and-desist citations against illegal loggers, according to Planet’s Brazilian partner, MapBiomas.
Even more important, Marshall said, is how Planet’s commercial business also helps by, for example, enabling farmers to do precision agriculture by giving them fine-grain images of their crops so they know exactly where to add water and fertilizer or when to harvest. “This may have the biggest ecosystem impact of all,” he said. More efficient crop yields that use less water and fewer fertilizers end up “reducing the need to plow up more tropical forest and strengthens the environment generally.”
The other company I am watching is Helion Energy, based in Redmond, Wash., which is working on “the world’s first fusion power plant.” Fusion energy has long been the holy grail for clean power generation — and it always seems 20 years away. As the International Atomic Energy Agency notes on its website: “The sun, along with all other stars, is powered by a reaction called nuclear fusion. If nuclear fusion can be replicated on earth, it could provide virtually limitless clean, safe and affordable energy.”
Last June, as the website New Atlas reported, Helion published results confirming that its latest system had managed to heat a fusion plasma to a temperature over 100 million degrees Celsius, “which is significant, since it’s around the point at which there’s enough thermal energy to create large amounts of fusion.”
On Nov. 5, in the midst of Glasgow, Helion, across the Atlantic in Redmond, announced that it had raised $500 million in new financing in a round led by Sam Altman, C.E.O. of OpenAI and former president of Y Combinator, along with a Who’s Who of tech entrepreneurs.
The current generation of Helion’s system, Techcrunch.com reported, “wouldn’t be able to replace your Tesla Powerwall and solar panels — the size of a generator is roughly the size of a shipping container. But at 50 megawatts, the generators could power around 40,000 homes.” As New Atlas pointed out, “Helion projects it will generate electricity at rock-bottom prices of around $10 per MWh … less than a third the price of coal-fired power or today’s solar PV installations.”
Is Helion THE holy grail? Don’t know. There are other companies with promising approaches — like Commonwealth Fusion Systems — all racing to the same goal.I just know this: We got into this hole thanks to the worst of capitalism — letting companies privatize their gains from despoiling the environment and warming the climate — while socializing the losses among all of us.
We can get out of it, in part, by accelerating the best of American capitalism. We need to re-energize our innovation ecosystem to where government funds basic research that pushes the boundaries of physics, chemistry and biology and then combines that innovation with immigration policies that amass the world’s best pools of engineering talent and then unleashes that talent — propelled by risk-takers — to invent new clean technologies to slow global warming at the warp speed and scale we need.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.