Clean Tech’s Real Solyndra

The iconic image for the debate on climate change over the last decade has not been footage of glacial ice tumbling into the arctic sea or the cover of An Inconvenient Truth (2006). It is the climate forecast PowerPoint, crisscrossed with variable lines, demonstrating the empirical case for any number of global outcomes. The graph is familiar not only to people interested in the climate dilemma or in the energy industry, but also if you’ve perhaps seen a TED talk or Al Gore’s film. The truth is that forecast models appear persuasive, but if it ever felt a bit odd to nod your head to an argument applied to so many other endpoints, you’re onto something. Part of these evocative illustrations is a guess—to call it by name—about future benefits to come from technology improvement and innovation. The idea is that future technologies will contribute to the global balance of emissions. Putting aside the deception of building an argument on this fungible figure, the problem arises, even for well-meaning presenters, because the information needed to guess wisely doesn’t exist. From an early age, schoolchildren are prodded to look critically at arguments that don’t pass the sniff test. This is a moment to remember that fundamental civic tenant. The fact is, at this point, no one can accurately estimate the real value of technology improvement because the incentives driving technological...

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