Smoke and Mirrors

Bush’s top environmental adviser, James Connaughton, gave some hints this week as to what we can expect from next month’s climate-change summit. “The solution to climate change is the advancement of technology,” he told reporters on Monday. “And you need growing economies to pay for that technology … if you don’t have a growing economy, you don’t have the resources to pay for the new technologies.”

This is the environmental equivalent of supply-side economics: Only by ditching carbon caps and emissions targets, which could potentially slow the economy, can we reach the levels of technological innovation needed to save the planet. The Bush administration has been hawking this line for years. Back in 2003, then-energy secretary Spencer Abraham claimed that technology breakthroughs on a par with the discovery of electricity were needed to halt global warming; and that in the absence of such breakthroughs, attempts to reduce emissions would simply trigger an economic meltdown.

It’s clear, of course, that new technologies will be vital as we begin to tackle climate change. One industry research group recently calculated that by investing $35 billion in R&D over the next three decades, we could cut the long-term cost of federal emission-busting policies by up to one trillion dollars. But the administration is less interested in exploring synergies between carbon cuts and new technology than in holding up technology as a last-minute environmental panacea, absolving it of any responsibility to act now to stop climate change.

Consider, for example, the administration’s latest brainwave: Earlier this year, scientists were asked to research - wait for it - giant mirrors and reflective smoke that could be launched into space, preventing all those pesky sunbeams from reaching Earth in the first place. This sort of vapid sub-Star Wars nonsense may make great science fiction, but it doesn’t get us any closer to finding a genuine solution to the environmental problems we face.

It does, however, tell us something about the White House’s attitude towards technology: Not simply a useful tool, but rather a deus ex machina solution to all that ails our planet. As the climate change summit approaches, we should remember that while technology and research are vital, so is a willingness to do the best we can with the tools we currently have at hand. Innovation must complement rather than replace other ways of tackling global warming; anything else, unfortunately, is little more than smoke and mirrors.

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