When dollar figures reach into the millions, eyes tend to widen. Wow! That's a lot of money.
When they reach into the trillions, eyes tend to glaze over. Wow! That's just too big a number to comprehend.
The International Energy Agency said Thursday the world must spend $45 trillion over the next 40 years or so on an "energy technology revolution" if it is to find alternatives to oil and slow or stop global warming.
That's something like $3 billion a day, which brings the enormity of the task into focus. Somewhat. For context, Congress has proposed a U.S. budget that amounts to spending more than $8 billion per day in 2009 ($3 trillion for the whole year).
This spending isn't like a rent check. It doesn't just disappear. It's more like an investment in a new business. This is money put into new industries, new research, new technologies. You can't transform the way we generate energy without paying scientists to study, factory workers to assemble, engineers to operate and construction crews to install.
Barack Obama has made an "Apollo" program for new energy part of his talking points as he moves into the general election against John McCain. Both promise to do far more about finding alternatives to fossil fuels and reducing global warming than George W. Bush did. McCain has already started criticizing Obama's big government approach.
The question for the candidates, at least, seems to be how to solve these problems, not whether to address them.
$45 trillion is a lot to spend. And there is an alternative.
We could continue to use oil, making demand rise 70% despite the unlikelihood that there's enough oil on Earth to meet that demand. (If you think $4 a gallon is a lot, just wait.)
We could let the earth continue to heat up, against the advice of the world's smartest scientists. The result would be mass extinctions, nations torn apart by natural disasters, mass human migrations, violent storms ... Those have a cost, too (more than $600 million per day in 2005, the most expensive year on record for natural disasters), but would put few people to work other than relief workers.
How would you spend $45 trillion?
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