TECH
12/14/2015 08:35 pm ET

Can Tech Stop Climate Change? We Asked An Expert.

There's no magic bullet -- but don't despair. Yet.

If you keep up with the news, you've seen a lot about climate change in the past few weeks. World leaders reached a landmark deal on Saturday to curb the threat of global warming, and some of the world's most powerful entrepreneurs have joined the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to help.

While governments naturally focus on policy, the coalition emphasizes technology. “Attempts to solve global problems frequently fail because they require collective action from governments, universities, and the private sector," LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, a member of the group, said on the coalition's website.

"Producing large-scale, reliable, affordable, and carbon-free energy is one of these key global problems," he continued. "The swords that cut this Gordian Knot: breakthrough technologies built and deployed by entrepreneurial companies with global scope." 

But what does that mean, exactly? No, not the part about a "Gordian knot." What is technology's role in establishing a cleaner planet? To understand a bit more about tech's relationship with global warming, The Huffington Post spoke with Edward A. Parson. He's the faculty co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles, and has consulted for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

If anyone can answer our questions, it's this guy.

Bjorn Kindler via Getty Images

First: How important is technology in the fight against climate change?

The most basic question was, of course, the easiest to answer. Tech -- more specifically, energy technology -- is fundamental to combatting global warming.

"It's absolutely decisive," Parson said. "You can understand climate change as a mostly technical problem to which there is a mostly technical solution."

Fossil fuels are the big problem -- viable alternatives to dirty energy sources like coal and oil would put us in a much better place. Technology also could help offset damage already done.

"It's a huge change that has to happen, and it doesn't have to happen on a dime," Parson said. "A lot of what has to happen to change the energy system isn't discovering the brilliant new breakthrough technology that's going to make it all better. It's rolling new, better technologies out through the whole system and getting them deployed and used."

There's a lot of work left, even if we have some of the baseline energy technology that will help, like more efficient solar power and wind power.

How long will it take for technology to turn the tide?

If this was a snap-your-fingers moment, it would've happened already. 

"Even if you have a magic bullet, it's a slow process," Parson said.

He compared the struggle with steering a tanker. A lot of calculations need to be made, a lot of switches flipped, before we'll be moving in the right direction. Even if the Breakthrough Energy Coalition succeeded in making solar energy dirt cheap, Parson explained, there would be a decades-long process to implement that technology around the world. Remember: In most of the world, about 80 percent of energy consumption comes from fossil fuels.

The World Bank
View an interactive version of this map here.

What are the solutions, exactly?

There are a couple of really important things: Renewable clean energy, better energy storage and improved nuclear power.

Nuclear is kind of the bogeyman: It has a bad rep because of high-profile meltdowns, the term "radioactive waste" and the existence of Godzilla. Aside from the safety issue, nuclear energy is preferable to fossil fuels and also lacks the problems of some renewable sources -- like wind power.

"The sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow," Parson said. We checked, and he's right.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Godzilla.

Parson explained that it's vital for nuclear energy to become safer and easier to implement. He said nuclear technology has basically idled for years -- and improving it could make people far more comfortable with the prospect of having nuclear plants in their backyards.

As far as renewable energy is concerned, there's been a lot of progress on developing more affordable and effective wind energy and solar energy. But more needs to happen. The technology needs to be viable everywhere. In part, that's a responsibility for organizations like the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. It's also where the government comes in.

"If you really want to steer the ship as fast as you can, you need systematic, long-term incentives that favor the good stuff over the bad stuff," Parson said. "And the only place they can reliably come from is policy and regulation deployed by government."

Policymakers need to ensure that it makes sense to focus on "good" energy -- renewables, say. Think of carbon taxes. If it's more expensive to burn fossil fuels than not, you can imagine the path corporations will take.

Better energy storage also would be a boon. If it's a problem that the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow, how great would it be if it was easier to pack away the energy both sources generate?

What's the bottom line?

The world isn't necessarily doomed and positive changes are happening -- even though they may take a very long time.

"The technologies that are needed to move to a climate-safe society, many of them are already available or close to development," Parson said. "There is a big message of optimism."

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