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How Renewable Energy Is Like The Swine Flu

Recently I visited an old friend of mine, and at one point our discussion turned to climate change and renewable energy.  He made the comment that renewables certainly make a lot of sense, but it's "up to the market" to determine their viability.  My initial response was that the fossil fuels we have depended on for so long have been getting, and continue to get, subsidies already.  So it makes sense to subsidize the renewables.  He conceded this point, but I don't think I totally convinced him.

What I didn't tell him, because I thought of it later, is that renewables are more like swine flu vaccine than like a regular marketplace technology.

It was not "up to the market" to create and distribute a vaccine for the H1N1 virus.  That would not have worked.  Imagine that we allowed the market to determine if there would be enough demand to justify researching and manufacturing the vaccine.  Pharmaceutical companies would do market research and determine pricing and market size and then make a decision.  Probably they would have found that it would be too expensive and risky to invest in developing the vaccine.

There was not an option to take that chance.  Government not only created the market for the vaccine, but also supported the development and distribution.  The US spent about $9 billion getting the H1N1 vaccine into the market in order to stave off a potential epidemic.

This is s good analogy; we are now facing and "epidemic" of climate change.  No more can we rely on the market to address this all by itself than we would have allowed the market to address the swine flu.

Interestingly, the swine flu had a greater degree of uncertainty than climate change does.

  • We didn't know exactly how virulent it would be
  • We didn't know how effective--if at all--the vaccine would be
  • We didn't know how communicable the disease would be, nor how widespread

We knew none of this for certain, yet we did not hesitate to invest significant public resources to head off the threat.  The certainty about climate change is much greater than that of H1N1, so why are we not investing significant government resources in fighting it, too?

That's a question for another day.  But the next time someone suggests that renewable energy is too expensive and can't compete in the market, ask if those same questions should have applied to the swine flu vaccine.