Fixing The Climate Innovation Gap

05/01/2015 05:26 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016

The modern research university was conceived in 19th century Germany by Wilhelm von Humboldt to advance higher education from basic knowledge acquisition toward the higher ideal of knowledge generation. By combining teaching and research by placing students in labs alongside their professors, this new model fostered academic freedom and research innovation. It also provided a steady stream of young, creative, and motivated scientists. Universities worldwide quickly adopted this model and this built the brain trust that launched the industrial revolution.

Most of the U.S. economic growth after World War II was developed through U.S. federal government investment in novel and innovative research in the science and engineering halls of major universities. This public-private partnership spawned the creation of entirely new industrial sectors -- biotech, semiconductor, Internet -- that are cornerstones of our modern economy.

There is concern that this leadership, and the economic buoyancy it has provided, is in decline due to diminishing federal R&D support. A widening "innovation gap" has resulted from chronic and persistent underfunding of basic science and engineering research. Federal R&D support (as a percentage of GDP) has been declining over the last decade or more, and the U.S. is now near the bottom of all industrialized nations in terms of R&D funding growth.

Just last week, House Republicans rolled out another flat budget for the National Science Foundation. Two important details of this proposed budget caught media attention. First, the science education budget was cut by $100 million, validating concerns that the U.S. is continuing what amounts to an intentional divestment of the next generation of scientists and engineers who would build the future economy.

A surprising detail of this budget was a surgical 12 percent reduction for the Geosciences, the directorate that funds climate change research. This targeted slashing evidently fulfills a promise from committee chairman Lamar Smith (R, TX) to scrutinize and cut climate change funding. DOE budgets for environmental and renewable energy/efficiency research were also cut by 10 percent and a whopping 56 percent, respectively. While this budget has a long way to go before it is approved, its intent is crystal clear -- to defund and cripple climate science and energy solutions for our collective future.

Risky Business

Climate science has yet to turn anything resembling a profit, let alone develop a cure for cancer or invent the Internet. So how is the financial return on climate science in any way as deserving of support as science and engineering?

The Risky Business Project, led by Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and Henry Paulson, conducted a regional analysis of potential US economic risks resulting from climate change. The most economically significant climate risks were found to be damage to coastal property and infrastructure, changes in agricultural production and energy demand, and the impact of warmer temperatures on labor productivity and public health. More than any other factor, the direct economic exposure to climate change is determined by where we do business. By focusing on regional risks, the study distilled a complex topic and brought it to the kitchen table. As noted by Mr. Paulson, "Let me tell you! Here's what this is going to mean to you, your industry and your family. Suddenly people are interested."

The mounting economic costs of climate change chip away at our economic growth and prosperity. We're presently on track to warm an additional 3°C by the end of this century and the related damages to coastal cities and infrastructure, agriculture, human health, and ecosystem services (such as air and water purification) are estimated to cost about one percent of U.S. GDP, or about $170 billion -- annually. The great wealth brought to us by science and technology will be diminished, even possibly erased, by the mounting costs of climate change, the "social and economic cost of carbon". The global economy and the global environment are on a collision course, as noted with exceptional clarity in Naomi Klein's new book "This Changes Everything".

Climate science is our only way to develop a rational, physically based understanding of how, when, where, and why climate change will impact those things that matter to us most. It provides our roadmap for the future, detailing where the trouble spots and dead ends are, and also where opportunities lie.

While the prospect of 3°C warming by the end of the century doesn't keep many people up at night, associated changes in our access to food, water, and shelter do capture our attention. Forty million Californians are affected by the exceptional four-year drought that now impacts 93 percent of the state. The drought cost over $2.2 billion in agricultural and related losses in 2014 alone, and profligate groundwater pumping has undercut resiliency. Texas lost $8 billion in agricultural damages alone in their 2011 drought. More frequent heat waves and drought elsewhere directly impact food security through stunted crop growth and reduced yields. Coastal cities and infrastructure are vulnerable to sea level rise, and ice sheets at both poles are melting at an accelerated rate. A new study by Carling Hay and others from Harvard showed that sea levels are now rising more than twice as fast as they were just a couple of decades ago. Last year saw the warmest global temperature ever in the 136 years we've been keeping records, and first three months of 2015 were the warmest ever recorded for each month.

A Way Forward

But such gloomy messaging is counterproductive and does little to advance progress toward viable, sustainable solutions. Indeed, it is fundamentally unethical to advance the view that life will become increasingly worse and insecure for the world's poorest. Instead, it's important to act upon this historic opportunity before us. As Buckminster Fuller famously observed, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete". Thankfully, that change is happening.

The good news is that the world is now adding more renewable energy capacity than coal, oil, and gas combined. This momentous transition quietly took place in 2013 and renewable power generation is projected to increase four-fold by 2030. The economic factors driving this are simple; the cost of electricity from wind and solar has plummeted and it is now on par or cheaper than conventional grid sources. The question is no longer if this energy shift will happen but rather how long it will take.

But we still need our road map for the future - a science-based guide for understanding how climate change will impact those things that matter to us most: the security of our food, water and shelter. This is what climate scientists do and we're getting increasingly good at it. There are many questions we'll need to answer, and soon. How fast will sea levels rise and which coastal cities will be impacted first? How and when will water resources be impacted for specific regions? Will the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as floods, droughts, and hurricanes change and if so, when? How will large agricultural regions and crop yields be impacted? How will ocean ecosystems and food resources change? How can we restore broken ecosystems - the engines of planetary sustainability? How weird is the climate of our present and near future relative to the preindustrial past?

These questions can't be answered if climate scientists can't do their work. While I'm optimistic that the political tide is turning, I'm doubtful it will do so quickly enough. It's changing already: 83 percent of Americans understand that global warming will be a serious problem in the future based on a new New York Times-Stanford poll. Business gets it too: Last week, 43 CEOs of large international corporations representing $1.2 trillion in revenues issued an open letter calling for fast action on climate change.

The great wealth generated from science and engineering innovation gets it as well. Venture philanthropy has been investing in research universities to mobilize scientists to solve targeted global problems, much in the same way that venture capital funds promising ideas. While private giving cannot and should not replace federal support, the truth is that federal support has been in decline for years and important work isn't being done. This most recent climate research budget slash has had a chilling effect on young researchers and it may, indeed, be successful in crippling climate science solutions unless the public, business and finance, and philanthropy step up to the plate.

Investment in climate science research can equally serve as an engine for economic growth. Knowledge is power on a changing planet, and understanding the winning (and losing) opportunities gives business advance, actionable knowledge that improve both sides of the ledger. For example, investing in climate science research has been widely adopted in the $2 trillion reinsurance industry. A recent headline speaks volumes, "No climate change deniers to be found in the reinsurance business".

Fixing the climate innovation gap is an urgent priority for us all. If we lose our ability to understand and predict the climate risks ahead, we risk losing the economic growth and prosperity that science itself has produced. This can be done with combinations of federal, industry, and foundational support, but it has to get done. Were Humboldt around today his likely response would be to accelerate research and mobilize scientists to develop the knowledge we need to make informed decisions about our collective future.