We landed on a comet, so why can't we stop climate change?

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OK, so we've figured out how to propel a small device through space at 60,000 kilometres an hour for 10 years, and then land it on a comet 6 billion kilometers away.

But using a solar-powered car to drive, say, the 60 kilometres between Toronto and Whitby? No way. Get real.

For that matter, humans first operated a solar-powered car on the moon almost 40 years ago. But the trip to Whitby still seems too challenging.

It's not that doing things in outer space is technologically easier. Oddly enough, though, it's politically easier to get governments to focus money and effort on exploring faraway planets than on preserving the planet where we actually live. It seems it's harder to boldly go where we actually need to go.

In fact, the difference between the incredible advances made in space exploration and our minuscule advances on tackling climate change boils down to nothing more than political will. Perhaps that's why those resisting action on climate change inevitably ignore or downplay the vitally important role that government could play -- and instead imply that the market will somehow take care of the problem on its own.

Of course, the Harper government, having earned its reputation as the world's most obstructionist government on climate, has little credibility on the subject. So it falls to more ostensibly open-minded commentators -- like the Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente -- to put a little lip gloss on the case for government inaction.

Wente points out that Google made a huge investment in developing an effective green technology to compete with coal, but eventually threw in the towel, concluding the problem was simply too big and current technology wasn't up to the task. Sadder but wiser, the directors of the Google project now insist that the solution to global warming lies in innovators coming up with a huge new technological breakthrough.

But what both the Google project directors and Wente leave out is the crucial role of government -- and political will -- in finding that "breakthrough technology" and in developing the ones we already have. Instead, they seem to want to rely on the market.

But while the market certainly has a role to play, the only real hope of dealing with a problem as immense as climate change is through the collective action of governments, both in leading their own populations and in co-ordinating actions on a global scale. Individual market players -- with their profit-focused, risk-adverse indifference to the public good -- just aren't up to the task.

In fact, virtually all previous major technological breakthroughs have started with heavy government involvement and financial support, notes technology professor Mariana Mazzucato in The Entrepreneurial State. Only after the state has made the initial, high-risk investments are corporations and venture capitalists willing to put their timid toes into turbulent water.

Mazzucato describes the state's pivotal role in developing the computer industry, the Internet, nanotech, biotech, the emerging green tech sector -- even the algorithm that was crucial to the success to Google.

"In all these cases, the State dared to think -- against all odds -- about the 'impossible': creating a new technological opportunity, making the initial large necessary investments, enabling a decentralized network of actors to carry out the risky research, and then allowing the development and commercialization process to occur in a dynamic way."

The need for strong government action is particularly acute in the case of green technology, since its success would threaten the profitability of the enormously powerful fossil fuel industry.

"Energy markets are dominated by some of the largest and most powerful companies on the planet, which are generally not driven to innovate …" notes Mazzucato. "Leaving direction setting to 'the market' only ensures that the energy transition will be put off until fossil fuel prices reach economy-wrecking highs."

The truth is we already have solar-powered and electric cars that we could all be driving. Imagine if we also had a government that used taxes or subsidies to reduce the cost of a green car to about half the cost of a regular gas-guzzler, and ensured recharging stations for these green vehicles were as common as gas stations.

Imagine if we had a government that actively co-operated with other nations in addressing the climate challenge, and communicated to the Canadian public that it considered fighting climate change as big a priority as fighting Islamic State.

Wente suggests we have two choices for seriously reducing carbon: abandon our materialistic ways or rely on innovators to find a breakthrough technology.

One can only guess that her neocon reflexes, like those of Stephen Harper, have led her to omit the most crucial ingredient in any attempt to tackle climate change, the ingredient we should all be demanding: government leadership.

Winner of a National Newspaper Award, Linda McQuaig has been a reporter for the Globe and Mail, a columnist for the National Post and the Toronto Star and author of seven bestsellers, including Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and other Canadian Myths and It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet. Her most recent book (co-written with Neil Brooks) is The Trouble with Billionaires: How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World, and How We Can Take It Back.

This article is reprinted with permission from iPolitics

Photo: DLR_de/flickr

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