In the dismal early days of the pandemic, a vaccine seemed depressingly far off. Historically, the average time to develop a new vaccine was 10 years—far too long for our current emergency. But then something happened to shift things into overdrive: serious government action.
The White House and Congress created Operation Warp Speed and started plowing some $18 billion into it. The feds authorized huge, multibillion-dollar preorders for vaccines, and with such a large guaranteed market, pharmaceuticals moved into high gear. The government also threw its logistical know-how at the hellish challenge of distributing the vaccines. Scientifically, of course, we were prepared and lucky. Genetic sequencing was advanced and speedy, and scientists cooperated globally. But it was the critical push from governments (the US and others) that propelled the fastest vaccine mobilization in history.
It’s also an object lesson for our troubled time: When you’re facing a world-threatening crisis, there’s no substitute for government leadership.
This is worth reflecting on, because we’re surrounded by existential threats. Principally, climate change. The scale of the problem is massive.
So is the answer: Operation Warp Speed for climate.
The US government should throw its muscle behind ramping up a mammoth, rapid rollout of all forms of renewable energy. That includes the ones we already know how to build—like solar and wind—but also experimental emerging sources like geothermal and small nuclear, and cutting-edge forms of energy storage or transmission. It’s not as if the feds have done nothing on renewables; tax credits for solar are partly why adoption is up and the price is down. But compared to the terrifying scale of the problem, the spending has been chump change. For the past 40 years, the US has spent 37 percent more on R&D for fossil fuels than for renewables.
A Climate Warp Speed campaign should invert that ratio. Hell, 10X it! More crucially, the government should become a bulk buyer of renewable energy. The feds’ vaccine purchase is what jolted pharmaceutical companies to move so bloody fast with Covid-19. “They’re not just going to make a bunch of vaccine that’s going to sit on a shelf and nobody’s going to buy,” notes Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security. The virus created the demand; the feds created the market.
With renewable energy, the US government could pledge to buy as much clean energy as firms can make. One thing that slows cutting-edge deployments is that selling energy—closing contracts with many different states, cities, or businesses—is often a glacial, convoluted affair, notes Tim Latimer, CEO of Fervo Energy, a developer of geothermal energy. By being a single, huge buyer of first resort, the feds could strip away complexity.
“If the government just said, ‘Look, we’ll buy the first batch’—all of a sudden the scientists get to do what they do best, which is focus on the science and build it with certainty,” Latimer says. “That would just catalyze all kinds of new activities.”
The US can offer more than just cash, though. We have logistics. A climate Warp Speed could use the organizational oomph of our government and military to bring clean energy to every federal building nationwide. They could cut through red tape too. (They did this during Operation Warp Speed for vaccine-component firms.) If anything, the Trump administration erred in not going big enough to ramp up vaccine supply. Emergencies gotta emergency.
Carbon sequestration needs the Warp Speed treatment too. Startups and labs have dreamed up prototypical hardware for scrubbing carbon from the atmosphere. But it’s a gnarly engineering challenge that needs early support. In the long run, there may well be a robust market for extracted carbon, transformed into fuel or as construction materials. But in the short run it’s just an expensive pile o’ extracted carbon. So the feds should buy it.