Recent years have been disappointing for U.S. advocates of aggressive action on climate change. Efforts to pass comprehensive cap-and-trade legislation, which would have promoted the deployment of clean energy by making dirty energy more expensive and thus cut U.S. emissions, failed spectacularly. Global climate change negotiations, expected by many to deliver a legally binding deal that would sharply constrain global greenhouse gas emissions, have done nothing of the sort. Meanwhile, warnings of dangerous risks in the climate system have mounted.
People who understand that the climate problem is serious have reacted by grasping for new ways that government can lead on this front. Out of this searching, a big new idea has emerged: The world can cut through the dead-end politics of climate policy by focusing on clean technology. At home, rather than penalizing dirty energy, government would step in to help make clean energy cheap, a much more positive agenda that its proponents argue would eventually encourage mass adoption of low-carbon energy sources. Internationally, virtuous competition to win a clean energy race would replace the tired and unproductive squabbling that has marked efforts to agree on emissions constraints. Cheaper clean technologies would also mean that developing countries, where most future energy demand will come from, will fuel their economies cleanly, since cheap low-carbon options will become the ones that also enhance economic growth.
Alas, the turn from regulation to innovation is not a magic recipe for eliminating conflict over domestic or international policy, or even for significantly reducing it. Instead, it will create new fights in new spheres. This is not a reason to reject a big technology push as part of a serious climate strategy; climate change needs to be confronted, and conflict is almost certainly endemic to serious climate policy. Nonetheless, before policymakers place their bets on technology policy, they would do well to better understand the opportunities for conflict that lurk there. If they do, they will realize the limits of technology policy and will more likely pursue a modest but constructive approach. If they do not, the more likely outcome is a drive that tries to do too much with technology policy. But just like the maximalist efforts to solve every climate problem with cap-and-trade and an international treaty, that overstretch is likely to beget failure.