Where are the Global Problem Solvers?

One disturbing aspect of global politics today is the confusion between negotiations and problem-solving. While negotiations on climate change, for example, mainly concern which countries should cut their emissions, by how much, how fast, and relative to which baseline year, any meaningful agreement depends on which technologies are available, and when.

NEW YORK – One odd and disturbing aspect of global politics today is the confusion between negotiations and problem-solving. According to a timetable agreed in December 2007, we have six months to reach a global agreement on climate change in Copenhagen. Governments are engaged in a massive negotiation, but they are not engaged in a massive effort at problem-solving. Each country asks itself, “How do I do the least and get the other countries to do the most?,” when they should be asking instead, “How do we cooperate to achieve our shared goals at minimum cost and maximum benefit?”

These might sound like the same thing, but they are not. Addressing the problem of climate change requires reducing emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, which in turn involves choices in technology, some of which already exists and much of which needs to be developed. For example, coal plants, if they are to remain a major part of the energy mix, will need to capture and store their CO2, a process called “carbon capture and sequestration,” or CCS for short. Yet this technology remains unproved. 

Similarly, we will need renewed public confidence in a new generation of nuclear power, with plants that are safe and reliably monitored. We will need new technologies to mobilize large-scale solar power, wind power, and geothermal power. We might try to tap bio-fuels, but only in forms that do not compete with food supplies or with precious environmental assets.

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