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On Green China: Friend or foe?

Marc, I'm in the midst of reading the Atlantic piece you referenced, which I agree is well worth a thoughtful read.

What is worth a refresher though is a look at the historic role government has played in fostering the kind of entrepreneurial and innovative American environment that has secured our competitiveness and prosperity in decades past.  Here's two pieces worth examining:

First, this recent CBS Evening News report highlights how the road to economic recovery requires reinvestment in innovation, education, and R&D.  And what is implicit in the examples they cite (defense and space race spending) is that government traditionally plays a role, not just in basic science and education (which we both agree are critical), but in early market development for emerging technologies.  And this traditionally looks much more like government purchasing or "subsidy" than it does carbon pricing and economy-wide market mechanisms (we didn't get the internet by taxing telegraphs, nor the personal computer by putting a cap and trade on typewriters, as my colleague Michael Shellenberger is fond of saying).

Second, this recent Newsweek cover story by Fareed Zakaria looks at the long history of America's innovative might, and explains why we can't simply count on a continuation of the kinds of conditions that led to the entrepreneurial and innovative culture we both praise, Marc.  Zakaria (citing at one point the Breakthrough Institute's Case Studies of American Innovation document I've repeatedly referred you to Marc), explains the critical and often far more pervasive role government must play in securing such an entrepreneurial culture and America's technological leadership.  Zakaria similarly highlights the role public funding for basic R&D, education and policies to encourage immigration of talented innovators (again, we're all in agreement there it seems), but the examples he cites also identify the role government plays as "early adopter" of critical technologies, through a variety of means that extend far beyond funding for research or eduction, including direct procurement, demonstration funding, and incentives or regulations to create early markets for emerging techs.

Perhaps your next column can react to/respond to each of these pieces.  Thanks Marc,

January 12, 2010    View Comment    

On Green China: Friend or foe?

Marc, thanks for the quick response. Yes, we both support a carbon price, and I know you understand the critical role government investment in R&D and education play in innovation and economic growth.  However, I think, as I've pointed out before, that your perception of the history of technology and economy progress is a bit skewed when it comes to the much more expansive role the government has played in partnership with and as the key enabling driver or private sector innovation and industry growth.  

There would be no Silicon Valley, no IT revolution, no low-cost semiconductors affordable enough to enable the personal computer revolution, no nuclear power, no jet engines or gas turbines, no wind or solar power, etc. etc. etc. without a much more active - you might say 'intrusive' - role for government.  That's simply the historic reality.  I don't see how we can expect a clean energy revolution, much less U.S. leadership in that revolution, without a similarly active role for government, and you've yet to give me any confidence that your narrower prescription for government will be at all sufficient.  

You also seem to ignore the fact that it's precisely the kind of proactive government investment and active partnership with industry that is giving China such an edge in the clean energy race.  Their 'green leap forward' isn't fueled by a carbon price and some hands-off tax policies after all!

You write: "Besides, if it's OK for us to export eSolar's software or First Solar's technology (not to mention Microsoft's and Google's and Apple's), isn't is also OK for us to import toys, clothes, iPods or for that matter wind-turbine parts or PV panels from China, not to mention Denmark or Germany. Trade is a two-way street, right?"

Trade is certainly a two-way street, and we'll clearly import clean energy technologies and components from China.  But you cannot ignore the balance of trade and the implications for our economy (let alone for the future of the middle class in America).  

Finally, you write: "Mostly, I think, we should cheer when China goes green. Just like we would cheer for a medical breakthrough invented in India or go see a great movie made in the UK."

We should most certainly cheer.  A green China is unquestionably good for the world.  But after we cheer, it's time to get serious about the implications for America's future.  



January 11, 2010    View Comment    

On Green China: Friend or foe?


Thanks for highlighting the Rising Tigers report.  I have to say though that I don't find your conclusions here particularly compelling (as you might have guessed!).  

First off, heightened competition between China and the United States doesn't come at the detriment of our "one earth," but rather its benefit.  Think about the kind of resources leveled at the Cold War efforts to dominate defense, IT, computing and semiconductor technologies, but the end result isn't a world with more nuclear weapons, fighter jets and laser-guided bombs; it's a world with more cleaner, cheaper energy technologies.  It's true that the world is much much better off to see China's green leap forward.  But where is the downside in America entering the clean energy race in full force?  And how does the world achieve the clean energy technology revolution we need at the pace and scale demanded without the full might of the United States?  I don't see how our "one earth" can afford to see the U.S. sit this one out.

Second, your post uses one of the few examples of U.S. firms exporting technologies to China.  That's exactly the kind of situation we want to see, but I don't think you can extrapolate from one start-up firm's experience to see the implications for the U.S. clean energy sector as a whole.  Our>Rising Tigers report takes a far more expansive look at the current state of clean energy competitiveness, and the conclusions are clear: without much greater emphasis and support for clean energy innovation, manufacturing and technology leadership in the United States, we will see far more of the opposite kind of example: U.S. projects importing Chinese made (and probably invented) technologies.  

This isn't just about patriotism, or about the rhetorical tricks that will spur Congress to act.  There are real economic consequences at stake here.  (BTW, China isn't beating us by putting a price on carbon; why should we assume carbon prices are sufficient to keep America competitive?)

With an economy in recovery and looking for new sectors to drive real economic growth and job creation (not just fancy accounting and Wall Street "financial engineering"), there are few sectors more promising than clean energy.  Will we wind up swapping imported oil for imported solar and nuclear plants, plug-in hybrid cars and high-speed rail technologies?  If we cede the manufacturing game to China (as Friedman suggests), what will that do to our trade deficit?  What will it do for the future of Ohio or Michigan?  I don't see how the U.S. economy can afford to sit this one out.

There will be clear opportunities at the firm level for partnership with China.  And joint research and innovation partnerships can proceed as well.  But let's be clear: it's not simply "all good" for our "one earth" if China alone dominates the clean energy sector.  It's a multi-trillion dollar potential sector.  There's room for many firms and multiple national economies to engage fully in the race for leadership in various clean energy technologies and fields.  Real economic consequences will accrue to the winners and losers of that race, and I for one can't stomach the massive lost opportunity and the damage to the U.S. economy that would result if we sit idly by while China races ahead.  The world will benefit. U.S. firms industry will benefit. And the United States' economic future will benefit if the U.S. fully joins the clean energy race.

So this all leaves me very unclear on what exactly you're suggesting Marc.  As always, appreciate your thoughts.  

All the best,
Jesse Jenkins

January 11, 2010    View Comment    

On Why Stewart Brand’s new book is a must-read

I'll join Marc in highly recommending "Whole Earth Discipline" for any and all readers of  It is certainly the most interesting, important and thought-provoking book I read in 2009.  It has helped me rethink nuclear power, inspired me to re-imagine the possibilities of science and innovation to help a world of 9 billion humans coexist with a diversity of non-human species, and epitomizes a kind of pragmatic and progressive approach to environmental challenges (look forward, not back; judge options by their practical outcome, not ideological presuppositions; embrace technological change, innovation and human capacities, not condemn them) that I strive to practice and promote.

You may not agree with everything in this book (but what's the point of reading books that sound exactly like you), but you will be missing out on a though-provoking, critical exploration of environmental challenges in the 21st century if you don't read Brand's book.

Thanks for bringing this book to the attention of TEC readers Marc.  Cheers,

January 6, 2010    View Comment    

On Copenhagen: Obama Announces Climate Deal, UNFCCC Crumbles?

We'll see Roger.  If you're afraid a prediction might be wrong, you'll never wind up making any!  The way I read the tea leaves, the action is most likely to shift to the Major Economies Forum, WTO, G8/G20, APEC or other similar forums.  That said, the UNFCCC may stumble on, seeking a "binding treaty" in Bonn and Mexico City in 2010.  Good luck to that.  

Here's a wonderfully succinct summary of what's wrong with the UNFCCC (and why it unfortunately can't simply evolve, making death and renewal the only option for progress...):
"Here’s what you need to know about the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change: it’s based on a framework that can’t solve the problem, but changing the framework requires unanimity among 192 wildly diverse nations, so it’s stuck."
December 21, 2009    View Comment    

On An Energy Collective Discussion: Overcoming Hurdles to Nuclear Power in the United States

Thanks for the additional comments and resources.  BTW, a recent piece on Japan's technology leadership in the Economist touches on nuclear heavy forging capacity issues as well.
December 16, 2009    View Comment    

On Why the Road to Clean Energy Goes through Little Rock

Glad to see you posting at Josh.  Welcome!
December 16, 2009    View Comment    


Yet US voters won't countenance providing that dollar out of guilt, nor will they acquiesce to a scheme that makes China and other developing countries more competitive at their expense. ...

Instead of the technology transfer we've been talking about for more than a decade, what may be needed is a new mechanism that actually creates markets in the developing world for clean energy hardware and know-how produced in the developed world, so that these projects create jobs and wealth in the US and EU, rather than threatening them.

Well said. We need to find win-win, no-regrets options and build from there.  Copenhagen paints a clear picture of a climate strategy run its course. Will the world note that, regroup and rethink?  Or will the "agreement" be patched together and the Rio/Kyoto/Copenhagen strategy continue to shamble on like the walking dead?
December 14, 2009    View Comment    


December 11, 2009    View Comment    


Richard is indeed working with and is well worth connecting with.  Good luck in Copenhagen.
December 10, 2009    View Comment    


BTW, representatives of the Cascade Climate Network are now in Copenhagen, and the CCN's Moey Newbold had the opportunity to address the full plenary session yesterday.  You can watch her address and see updates from the CCN at COP15 here:

(Another clear example of the tools at our disposal today) 
December 10, 2009    View Comment    


Great post Marc.  I too have been struck by the incredible person-to-person connectivity enabled by the web and the variety of new tools at our disposal.  

I co-founded the Cascade Climate Network in 2007, the Northwest's largest network of youth activists working to build a clean, just and prosperous future (  But building that real-life, regional network would have been impossible without the online tools we now have at our fingertips.  Not only would a regional network across to large western states been next to impossible without the online and communication tools we used to keep in touch on a day to day basis, but I never would have connected with the other amazing leaders that came together to form the CCN in the first place, had I not made several connections via that would have been impossible otherwise.  Here's the story:

I'd been organizing locally from Portland, OR and writing and editing for the youth climate movement's online soap box,  Via IGHIH, I had come to know Richard Graves, one of IGHIH founders, who was based in Washington DC.  Richard and I had met just once in person, but he knew that I was looking to connect Northwest organizers to build a more powerful network capable of tackling statewide and regional issues and able to have an impact on our federal elected officials.  Richard was a graduate of Macalaster College in the Twin Cities, and knew Timothy Den-Herder Thomas, a star organizer at Macalaster, Sierra Student Coalition leader, and organizer of a new statewide network of youth climate activists in MN.  Richard connected Timothy and I to brainstorm ideas and offer advice on how to start up a network in Oregon.  

Timothy knew that several SSC-affiliated organizers in Oregon were up to similar ends, and introduced me to Nathan Jones, who at the time was at Portland Community College, and Juliana Williams, at that time at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA.  The two were already planning an in-person summit on Mt. Hood to connect Northwest youth organizers interested in banding together to form a regional network.  Just days after Richard connected me with Timothy, I was on conference calls with Nathan, Juliana and several others across Oregon and Washington working to organize the summit, which led to the creation of the Cascade Climate Network in October 2007.

Both organizers were "in my neck of the woods" yet it took an internet-enabled connection to someone in Washington DC, who bounced me an organizer in Minneapolis-St Paul in order to connect back to organizers in my own state and even city!  And it all revolved around connections made at a blog that's become the online hub of a real-world global movement.

What's revealing in both Jamie's story and mine is the overlay of online and offline networks.  I think Tom Friedman once chastised young organizers to "get off of facebook and get into the streets."  That kind of sentiment evidences such a horrible lack of understanding about how this model of organizing works.  This doesn't live online.  It's not people sitting at their computers and ignoring the real world.  What the online component does is enable incredible fast connection of offline resources and connections, and enables coordination on an unprecedented scale.  What would have taken far longer to scale and connect via traditional (and generally isolated) offline networks now takes a fraction of the time, as the online networks enable people to "hop across" now connected offline social networks in a way that was not possible before.  That can have powerful implications, as this post makes clear.


Jesse Jenkins

December 10, 2009    View Comment