New Trees

Reading Ken Macleod’s excellent science fiction novel Intrusion (see Cory Doctorow’s enthusiastic review) has led me to think a bit differently about climate change. Humans have had a profound impact on the climate, despite the fact that we’ve only been around for a short period of time, and indeed our impact on the climate appears to have been mostly concentrated in the years following the Industrial Revolution or certainly since the rise of agriculture. Might there other sharp discontinuities in the near future? Macleod posits a world in which “New Trees,” the product of revolutionary advances in synthetic biology, rapidly reduce the atmospheric concentration of GHGs while cheap photovoltaics cause carbon emissions to plummet. Fanciful, but interesting.

Yesterday, Brad Plumer wrote on a new National Academy of Sciences report on how policymakers might seek reduce U.S. gasoline use and GHG emissions over the coming decades:

[I]t’s tough to find any single technology that can cut oil use in half by 2030 on its own. Making conventional cars more efficient won’t do it. A major push on electric vehicles won’t do it. The only things likely to work are a massive switch over to natural-gas vehicles (which would, in turn, make it much harder to hit the greenhouse-gas goals) or a combination of efficiency, electric vehicles, and advanced biofuels.

In contrast, Virginia Postrel recently described Brad Templeton’s vision for the future of the automobile:

Addressing business people attending a recent weeklong program at Singularity University, a think tank devoted to “accelerating change,” Templeton imagines a future of on-demand robotaxis replacing personal automobiles. Today’s parking lots, he suggests, could become tomorrow’s parkland. Fuel consumption would plummet, as people used tiny, single-person vehicles for most trips and electric cars for short hops, saving the gas- guzzlers for special occasions. Robocars, he declares, represent “a way that programmers can save the world.”

It’s classic Silicon Valley big-think speculation, with a flattering dose of technological boosterism. But along with the vivid scenarios that capture technologists’ imaginations comes the understanding that it’s all just guesses — and that future progress will grow from learning how such visions go wrong. 

As Postrel goes on to argue, the particular details of Templeton’s vision aren’t really central. Rather, it is the idea that instead of transforming the entire transportation system, we can make incremental changes, e.g., self-driving cars that use existing roads and that do not require central control, that, if successful and cost-effective, can yield much bigger cascades of change. Perhaps the convenience of low-cost, on-demand mobility will lead to a steep reduction in U.S. carbon emissions from the transportation sector, not high-speed rail or biofuel subsidies, etc. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...