Should the Federal Government Focus on R&D or Infrastructure? Time Has Run Out, so R&D It Is.

John Tomac

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In the war against climate change, what should we focus on: R&D spending or infrastructure buildout?

This is an evergreen question, but here’s my answer. My proposal is that the United States should spend massive amounts of money on both these things. Practically speaking, however, that won’t happen. We’ll have to make choices. That being the case, I believe we should heavily prioritize R&D. There are two reasons for this:

  • To a large extent, we can push for green infrastructure via regulation. The brute force way is similar to CAFE standards in cars: we simply put increasingly stringent caps on carbon emissions, which would force utilities to move toward renewable electricity generation. Ditto for other sources of greenhouse gases.
  • More importantly, R&D is speculative and takes a long time to come to fruition. We need to begin an enormous R&D push now if we’re to have any chance of producing useful solutions in the next decade or two. We simply can’t wait to get started, and there’s really no way to get it going except via government investment.

Life and politics are always about choices and tradeoffs. It would be nice if we could get everything we want, but with our planet at stake it’s reckless to make plans based on that. We have to assume that climate funding is going to be hard to get and that we’ll need to set priorities. Compared to infrastructure, R&D funding is less partisan; more urgently needed; and has no other plausible sponsor than the federal government. For that reason, I would fight for everything, but strongly prioritize R&D if choices have to be made.

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