WASHINGTON — In recognition that Internet questionnaires get more eyeballs than earnest columns on energy policy, here is today's quiz on obscure presidential history: When President George W. Bush met Bill Gates for the first time, the topic of discussion was (A) nuclear power, (B) rural Internet access, (C) global health or (D) all of those subjects, in considerable depth, in that order.

Those who find "D" surprising don't get the concept of leading test questions and don't know much about either participant. As a fly on the wall at their lunch, I watched two men with a wonkish interest in energy policy talk over my head for 15 or 20 minutes about nuclear power plant design. (Gates has since become a major investor in one design that would utilize depleted uranium, essentially running on its own waste.)

One of Gates' contributions as a public-minded billionaire — as opposed to turning the Republican presidential nomination process into a second-rate reality television show — is to bring a dose of reality to the achievement of large humanitarian goals. The (almost) end of polio. The vaccination of children on a global scale.

In the case of energy, rigor requires rethinking. Gates is ruthless (and not always politically correct) in pressing the assumptions of the environmental movement to their logical conclusion. If climate scientists are right about the pace of global warming, and about the total amount of CO2 that humans can emit in the future without potentially catastrophic consequences, then we currently do not have feasible policy responses that are adequate to the need, even if we had far greater political will.

By some estimates, the world must keep two-thirds of its carbon-based energy resources in the ground — at the same time that vast numbers of people in China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere move toward middle-class levels of energy consumption. Gates makes the point in another way. If the goal — as some scientists urge — is an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, then it will be necessary "to reduce emissions from transportation and electrical production in participating countries down to zero."

Behavior change — shutting off the lights, turning off the air conditioner — is useful, but not even in the ballpark of responding to this need. Neither are the subsidies that governments provide to renewables such as solar and wind power. The cost of meeting future energy requirements with existing green technologies would be "beyond astronomical," Gates has argued.

There was no way to get to the moon by stacking ladders. That required an entirely different technology. Current environmental responses are the stacking of ladders. "We need breakthroughs," says Gates.

It is sobering when your only sufficient policy response is the production of a miracle. But I'll add a few more depressing political and economic factors. Human beings are fairly good at calculating costs into their decision-making — saving for a rainy day, buying car insurance — if the time horizon is a few months or a few years. They are not as good at assuming burdens, as in environmental policy, when the time horizon is a few decades or centuries. And they are terrible at shouldering burdens when future costs are paid disproportionately by other people — in this case by people living in poor countries that are more vulnerable to coastal flooding or drought.

So how do we get technological miracles at a realistic social and economic cost? Only by dramatically increased investment in basic research and development. Gates (matching money to mouth) has pledged to increase his personal investments in green technologies by $1 billion over the next five years. But sufficient scale only comes from government. So he has also recommended that U.S. investments in basic energy technology be more than tripled — from about $5 billion to $16 billion a year.

15 comments on this story

Even at this level, energy research funding would lag well behind defense and health research. But the increase would allow some impressive scientists to fully explore a variety of speculative options: things like flying wind turbines that collect energy from the jet stream; reverse-engineering photosynthesis to produce usable energy; batteries with dramatically increased storage capacity, or new nuclear designs that overcome the problem of radioactive waste.

This amounts to a series of informed bets. But all can be made at a relatively affordable cost, partially recovered by shifting funds from existing energy subsidies. Collectively, these kinds of bets may be our best shot at the miracle we require.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.