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We Can't Have Public-Private Partnerships Without a Government

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A small, extreme minority of the U.S. House of Representatives is holding the rest of us hostage to their confused and dangerous ideology. To these folks, a government shutdown is not something to be avoided, but a goal to be achieved. Over three decades after Ronald Reagan famously declared government a problem to be solved, we have a group of true believers acting as if Reagan's rhetorical flourish is an actual fact.

While we have radicals in Washington who seem to think that we don't need a government, we are starting to see signs of the decline that results when government is disassembled. Here in the New York region, the Metro North commuter line is out of commission for a couple of weeks because the basic infrastructure that brings power to the train line has failed. It's like living in a part of the developing world where you only get electricity for ten hours a week. Meanwhile, in China, a nation being hustled into the 21st century by a powerful combination of government and business, we see what happens when a country puts its shoulder to the wheel. As Keith Bradsher reported in the New York Times last week:

Just five years after China's high-speed rail system opened, it is carrying nearly twice as many passengers each month as the country's domestic airline industry. With traffic growing 28 percent a year for the last several years, China's high-speed rail network will handle more passengers by early next year than the 54 million people a month who board domestic flights in the United States.

The absence of train service in New York and its increasing presence in China, reminds us of the critical role that government plays in building transportation infrastructure. The public-private partnership in transportation has been around since the start of the United States. That partnership built the transcontinental railroad, the interstate highway system, the air traffic control system and the nation's many ports and shipping terminals. A government under constant attack and financial abuse can't get high-speed rails or smart grid energy systems designed and built.

As bad as it is to abdicate government's key role in building infrastructure, this attitude about government poses an even greater danger to the effort to create a public-private partnership to address the climate issue. The failure to move on greenhouse gas pollution is a profound threat to our well being. Last week marked the release of the latest report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Summarizing the report, NY Times reported Justin Gillis observed:

The world's top climate scientists on Friday formally embraced an upper limit on greenhouse gases for the first time, establishing a target level at which humanity must stop spewing them into the atmosphere or face irreversible climatic changes. They warned that the target is likely to be exceeded in a matter of decades unless steps are taken soon to reduce emissions... Going well beyond its four previous analyses of the emissions problem, the panel endorsed a "carbon budget" for humanity -- a limit on the amount of the primary greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, that can be produced by industrial activities and the clearing of forests.

Some experts believe that this will be the IPCC report that finally leads to a meaningful global greenhouse gas treaty. My view is that a global treaty budgeting carbon limits for each nation is a politically unrealistic goal. It is the type of solution that quantitative and analytic scientists and policy analysts find attractive, but will never be implemented. Many of my academic colleagues in the physical, natural and some social sciences cannot understand why such a straightforward bit of analytic reasoning is not simply accepted and implemented. It won't happen because the political pressure behind development in emerging economies cannot be contained. Smartphones and the Internet have brought images of the great wealth of the developed world to every corner of the developing world. They see what they are missing and they want it.

In the developing world, fragile regimes depend on signs of economic progress to survive. In the developed world, no one is going to willingly give up the material wealth that they already have. The only way out of this dilemma is through the rapid development and implementation of new technologies. Renewable energy technology is the key. First and foremost, solar cells and batteries must be made less expensively, and must replace some of our dependence on the fossil fuel-based grid. The process that brought cell phones to market and allowed them to displace landlines must be followed here. Second, we must develop and perfect the technology of carbon capture and storage. The current fossil-fuel based economy will take a generation to reverse and a century to eliminate. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will continue. We need to figure out how to capture and store carbon. Other technologies, such as other forms of renewable energy, perhaps a new type of nuclear power and of course, energy efficiency, will play a role as well.

The problem is that here in America, our government is too busy sipping tea to get down to the real work of addressing the climate crisis. America's incredible and creative scientific research capacity is dying on the vine. Our scientists are spending too much time writing research proposals out of fear that their government funding will end, and their labs will be closed, and too little time doing their scientific work. The profound threat to our nation does not come from too much government, but from the prospect of a day, a week or a month with no government at all.

The threatened government shutdown is brought to us by the same ideologues that deny the reality of climate science. The Tea Party has decided even though Barack Obama was re-elected president by a large majority and even though the Affordable Health Care Act is the law of the land, most Americans do not want to see it implemented. They have also decided, even though many of its key provisions have not yet begun, that Obamacare is a failure. This tenuous hold on reality could not be coming at a worse time. It reminds me a little of election night 2012 when some Republicans refused to believe that Obama had won. You remember: "If everyone in our subdivision and country club hates the president, how could he possibly have won?" The world as it really exists is challenging enough. Delusional thinking needs to be replaced by realistic analysis.

We must build an active partnership between the public and private sectors. We need to make the transition from a resource-consumptive economy to one that manages, reformulates and re-uses resources. To do this we need an active government, a vibrant research establishment, and a fully engaged private sector. This stool requires all three legs in order to stand. We can't have a public-private partnership if we don't have a government.