GREENS AND THEIR HAIR SHIRTS….UN head honcho Ban Ki-moon today endorsed immediate action on climate change. Me too! I’m glad the SecGen and I are on the same page.

And while we’re on the subject, did you read Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s latest environmental contrarianism in the New Republic last week? Basically, they argue that we liberals should stop droning on and on about regulation because (a) it won’t work and (b) it’s a bummer:

Environmental lobbyists in Washington today are overwhelmingly focused on addressing global warming through two overlapping strategies. First, they want to establish a cap on greenhouse gases that decreases over time. Second, they want to make clean-energy sources cost-competitive by increasing the cost of dirty energy.

….[But] the challenge is simply too large….Even if economies were to become much more efficient, the total terawatts needed to bring all of humankind out of poverty would still need to roughly double by 2050 and triple by century’s end.

….In promoting the inconvenient truth that humans must limit their consumption and sacrifice their way of life to prevent the world from ending, environmentalists are not only promoting a solution that won’t work, they’ve discouraged Americans from seeing the big solutions at all. For Americans to be future-oriented, generous, and expansive in their thinking, they must feel secure, wealthy, and strong.

Up to a point, I agree. Gloom and doom isn’t a big seller, and energy use will almost certainly increase whether we like it or not. So N&S propose that environmentalists should take off their hair shirts and instead start pushing for a technological revolution that slashes the cost of green-friendly energy sources. What’s needed are “disruptive clean-energy technologies that achieve non-incremental breakthroughs in both price and performance.”

Fine. But then they start to lose me:

The kind of technological revolution called for by energy experts typically does not occur via regulatory fiat. We did not invent the Internet by taxing telegraphs nor the personal computer by limiting typewriters. Nor did the transition to the petroleum economy occur because we taxed, regulated, or ran out of whale oil. Those revolutions happened because we invented alternatives that were vastly superior to what they replaced and, in remarkably short order, became a good deal cheaper.

And, contrary to conventional wisdom, private firms rarely initiate technological revolutions. Indeed, government has always been at the center of technological innovation, and most of America’s largest industries have benefited from strategic government investments in their development….Big, long-term investments in new technologies are made only by governments and are almost always motivated by concerns about national security or economic competitiveness, from the threat of the Soviet Union in the 1950s to OPEC in the ’70s.

Now, I’m a big fat liberal and I just love me some big fat government spending on worthy social projects. But even I think N&S are pretty wildly overstating the effect of government spending on technological progress. Sure, the feds can jump start things with cheap land for railroad barons or big contracts for microchips, but neither enterprise would have gone anywhere without dreams of private sector riches driving things as well. Synfuels, for example, were a boondoggle even though we tossed plenty of money at it, and one of the reasons was that oil was too cheap to convince anyone that there was any way to make money out of a replacement. So entrepreneurs just grapped the federal dough and ran.

I’m all for disruptive green technology, and N&S are probably right to say that environmentalists should focus on it more. But a big part of a successful federal green initiative involves not just promoting R&D, but creating a regulatory structure that provides long-term incentives for corporations to do more than go through the motions. Seed money is useful, but the businesses doing the R&D will turn the whole thing into a backwater unless they’re convinced there’s a huge market down the road for their disruptive wares — and that means a credible belief that the cost of dirty energy technologies are going to stay high. A well-conceived regulatory structure can help that happen, and also helps promote evolutionary technologies while we wait for the big breakthrough. Why not support both?

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