If the U.S. wants to tackle climate change and stay competitive in the global economy, it needs to stop playing by the old rules and start making new ones.
The looming global warming catastrophe could be worse, in the long term, than any war, social collapse, or single famine in human history. We need to scale up renewable technologies as quickly as possible -- by any means necessary. And that is exactly what the Chinese are doing. According to Steven Lacey at Climate Progress, while world solar cell manufacturing capacity was only 100 MW in 2000, it is now 50,000 MW –- and China by itself accounts for 57 percent. But this puts Americans, including Lacey and other environmentalists, in a peculiar position. On the one hand, we desperately want more solar and other renewable technologies. But on the other hand, by scaling up so fast, the Chinese might wipe out the American solar panel industry. Instead of trying to stop the Chinese from doing what they are doing, the U.S. needs to learn from them.
The environmental community has tended to contradict itself when it comes to rolling out renewable technologies. On the one hand, leaders such as Al Gore and my personal favorite global visionary, Lester Brown, call for a World War II-style mobilization to quickly convert our civilization so that we can avert ecological calamity. But the means advocated, such as putting a price on carbon, are not up to the task. We can't afford to wait to see if the market will do what is necessary.
The Chinese are not putting a price on carbon. In fact, they won't even negotiate a target for how much carbon they will output by 2020 or any other date. But they are doing something much more important: They are showing the world how you scale up a technology with a World War II type of effort. Some call it “cheating,” but if this is cheating, let's have much more. What are the Chinese doing right?
First, China has a five-year plan. In the U.S., corporations have five-year plans, and so does the Department of Defense. But imagine a president giving a State of the Union address announcing such a plan. There would be cries of “socialism!” I say, socialism, shmocialism, whatever works. The longer the time range, the better. Congress is now debating a multi-year transportation bill; the same should be done for the entire energy sector.
Second, many Chinese “banks," if you want to call them that, make money virtually free, and often don't even get their “loans” back. The government gives companies land –- which, by the way, Lincoln and the Republicans gave to railroads when obstructionist Southern Democrats were out of the way during the Civil War. Where would the U.S. be today if the railroad industry hadn't received a huge boost at the dawn of the industrial era, or if the Internet hadn't received a similar boost 100 years later?
Third, the Chinese import foreign technology and require foreign companies that set up factories in China to train Chinese engineers. Ever since the British tried to prohibit their engineers from traveling at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution so that Britain could maintain its dominance, other countries have been trying obtain -- or, as the originating country calls it, steal -- new technology. In a way this, is all part of a 1,000-year cycle, as the West gained many important technologies like the compass, printing, and gunpowder from the Chinese, who are now borrowing technology back.
Fourth, the Chinese are producing hundreds of thousands of engineers for their expanding manufacturing economy. Forty percent of the engineers in the U.S. are involved with manufacturing, according to a New York Times piece by Louis Uchitelle. Uchitelle reports that the Chinese manufacturing sector has either just grown larger than the American one or will shortly do so. As manufacturing declines here, it becomes much less attractive to have a career as an engineer. In China, on the other hand, being an engineer is a clear way to make it into the good life.
The point is not to idolize China. Far from it -- China is in a race to see whether it can switch to clean technologies before its dirty ones overwhelm its ecosystem and cause its economy to collapse, and its currency is much too low. But nations have always learned from other nations. Sometimes, the “teachers” cry “unfair!” when the “students” don't play by the rules. One hundred years ago, the British complained that the Americans were always copying their inventions.
But innovation is not simply a matter of technology; it is also a matter of policy. If something works, use it, even if it offends conventional wisdom. In fact, particularly if it offends conventional wisdom. That's what happened during the New Deal era of the 1930s, when the old policies were clearly failing and new ones had to be put in place (for instance, instead of tinkering with market rules in order to develop the Tennessee Valley, the TVA rebuilt the whole area). With global warming and other environmental problems, such as the end of cheap oil, threatening civilization, we need policy innovations even more than we need technological ones.
Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.