Bill Gates is pretty much right

For my valedictory post, it’s tempting to engage in a little big-picture think. I’m also still mulling the general reaction to Bill Gates’ TED talk, which seemed to me both entirely too hostile and also reflective of some of the lingering pathologies in the environmental movement. So, yeah, this is going to be a bit of a ramble.

Let’s start by putting forth two propositions:

1. In the future we will be richer (and that’s a good thing)
2. Technology will save us from climate change (if anything does)

Both of these statements are very probably true, but they tend to raise hackles among greens unless they’re wrapped in thick layers of caveats. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a nice caveat – I use them all the time myself – but, as the some of the nitpicking reactions to Gates’ talk reveal, it’s possible to cling to them too tightly.

First, wealth. Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, caused a stir in 2006 with the release of a report claiming that, if left unchecked, climate change could knock a full 20% off global GDP over the next two centuries. The Stern Review was both more detailed and more dire than previous attempts to quantify the economic impact of climate change. Although the report immediately set off a huge methodological squabble, the effect was nonetheless electrifying: a respected economist, working under the auspices of the British government, had declared that the costs of inaction on climate change massively outweigh the costs of action.

The little-noted kicker is that even in the terrible 20% scenario, the world will still be far richer than it is today. Not nearly as rich as it could or should be, but better off than we are now.

It’s fair to point out that the impacts of climate change will be unevenly distributed, and that measures of GDP fail to capture these effects. But it’s also important to note that, even as the developed world suffers through a calamitous financial crisis, these are the best of the times for the world’s poor, and the situation is likely to keep getting better (emphasis added):

> World poverty is falling. Between 1970 and 2006, the global poverty rate has been cut by nearly three quarters…Although world population has increased by about 80% over this time (World Bank 2009), the number of people below the $1 a day poverty line has shrunk by nearly 64%, from 967 million in 1970 to 350 million in 2006. **In the past 36 years, there has never been a moment with more than 1 billion people in poverty, and barring a catastrophe, there will never be such a moment in the future history of the world.**

Second, technology. Gates has gotten some (deserved) criticism for making disparaging remarks about energy efficiency, but his larger point is indisputable: we can’t conserve our way to zero emissions, so the long-term solution to climate change necessarily requires producing all of our energy from renewable resources. I might also add that the vast majority of emissions reductions from efficiency and conservation will also come from technological improvements.

In a response to Gates’ speech (“Why Bill Gates is wrong”), David Roberts complains that the focus on technology distracts from innovation in other areas, such as policy, systems integration, infrastructure development, finance, and even social norms. But, look: almost all “distraction” arguments are really just quibbling, and this one is no different. Although whizzy gadgets might first come to mind when we think about innovation, in truth society is quite good at recognizing and rewarding innovation that has very little to do with technological breakthroughs. In fact, it’s fair to say that greater rewards accrue to the people who disseminate and apply new technology to age-old problems than to those who invent it. Neither Amazon nor eBay invented the internet. They just used it to make a better way to shop. Likewise, the Passive House standard is just the systematized application of well-understood design principles and low-tech efficiency improvements. But it still represents technological innovation.

Part of the reason that greens push back on these truisms about wealth and technology is that many anti-environmentalists use glib versions of these arguments to argue for complacency or, worse, to push a noxious policy agenda. Such efforts deserve vocal opposition. But Bill Gates doesn’t. His speech included a call for carbon pricing, an endorsement of Al Gore’s most recent book, a nod to the problems of deforestation and cement production, and a strong plug for regulatory reform, energy efficiency, solar and wind energy. For a short speech focused mostly on a single energy start-up, it did a remarkably good job of covering its environmental bases.

So why the piling on? In part, Gates raised ire because he didn’t spend a lot of time on the usual pieties. Absent from his talk was any moralism about western lifestyles. His call for “energy miracles” was uncomfortably close to a call for silver bullets (something all good greens know to boo). He spoke like an engineer trying to solve a really big engineering challenge. And in so doing, he triggered some of the cultural grievances that often underlie discussions of energy consumption. I wrote recently that the environmental issue I care most deeply about is “finding a way to sustain nine billion wealthy and fulfilled human beings on a planet that hasn’t been completely despoiled.” This seems like an uncontroversial stance – which part would you argue with? – but it nevertheless prompted glib and entirely predictable comments about McMansions.

My guess is that Bill Gates’ formulation of the problem sounds really good to people who are worried about climate change but aren’t necessarily committed environmentalists. And frankly, that’s more important than being right on every single technical point, or achieving the officially sanctioned balance of tone and emphasis. If we want the issue of climate change to escape the green ghetto, we would do well to set cultural grievances aside. Partly this is just smart politics. People really don’t want to be lectured about their sins. But more importantly, such grievances lead us down the wrong path. Asking for a worldwide movement of people voluntarily and significantly downgrading their lifestyle to spare the earth is to pray for an energy miracle far beyond anything Bill Gates can conceive.

There is good news here. With the right policies in place, and the right research and development, and with swift innovation on many different fronts, future citizens will be transformed into eco-warriors by default. My grandmother refuses to touch a computer, but one-year-old babies can use an iPhone. Likewise, tomorrow’s kids are going to be energy geniuses and environmental savants, not because they’re any smarter or more enlightened than we are, but because the structure of their society and their technology and their markets will make it so.

At least, that’s my hope. We need to push forward in a variety of ways to bring such a vision to pass. And we need to shed some of the grim moralism to build a stronger environmental movement. Even if I’m pretty sure tomorrow is going to be better than today, I don’t think we can take anything for granted.

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adam

17 Comments

  1. Fred Magyar - March 3, 2010

    “Let

  2. Claudia - March 3, 2010

    Provided that those of us who understand and believe that Climate change is a crisis out number those who do not, I believe a better future is assured.

  3. Adam Stein - March 3, 2010

    OK, I read the piece on the Oil Drum. It’s just standard limits to growth stuff. I think there’s some possibility we’ll hit a wall, but more likely we won’t. Resources are finite, sure, but we’re not talking about an infinite population. We’re talking about nine billion people. The questions mostly are how do we manage our finite resources, what kind of planet will we live on, and how comfortable will we be.
    I’m really not ruling out the possibility of catastrophe — in fact this is one of the reasons it makes sense to address climate change. But catastrophe still isn’t the likely outcome. It’s just a scary and unpleasant possibility.

  4. Fred Magyar - March 3, 2010

    Adam,
    “it’s just standard limits to growth stuff. I think there’s some possibility we’ll hit a wall, but more likely we won’t. Resources are finite, sure, but we’re not talking about an infinite population. We’re talking about nine billion people.”
    Right and I suppose you expect those 9 billion people to stop reproducing and decide they don’t want to live in consumerist heaven let alone eat?
    Yes, the issue *IS* limits to growth! Humans seem to have a really hard time with understanding exponential functions.

  5. Steve Bogner - March 3, 2010

    “My guess is that Bill Gates

  6. Gay - March 3, 2010

    Amen to the talk on the link! Decisions about how we live on the planet must begin to reach farther than the ends of our noses.

  7. Adam Stein - March 3, 2010

    I actually take the limits to growth stuff very seriously, but the human population isn’t growing exponentially. It will reach ~9 billion in the middle of the century and then flatten or maybe slightly decline. I agree that those 9 billion people will want to consume a lot of stuff, and so our modes of production will have to change to accordingly. Sustainability won’t really be optional.

  8. richard schumacher - March 3, 2010

    Adam, that was well stated and completely correct. All of us should quote this repeatedly: “Asking for a worldwide movement of people voluntarily and significantly downgrading their lifestyle to spare the earth is to pray for an energy miracle far beyond anything Bill Gates can conceive.” The very poorest are the ones who breed like rats. History shows that in all times and places people cut their reproduction rates as their standard of living rises. The way to save the Earth is make all of her people rich, and the requirement is to do it without fossil fuels.

  9. Fred Magyar - March 3, 2010

    Richard,
    “History shows that in all times and places people cut their reproduction rates as their standard of living rises. The way to save the Earth is make all of her people rich, and the requirement is to do it without fossil fuels.”
    Correct and I agree it may have been true up to now while we had easy access to cheap fossil fuel energy to power that apparent rise in standard of living. I have actually lived and worked among some of those poor people that you refer to as “rats” in parts of the world that some people still call the “Third World” I doubt if you have any first hand experience yourself or you might use different words to characterize their circumstance. But I digress.
    In any case we urgently need to redefine a “high standard of living” as something other than blatant resource consumerism as currently lived in the “Rich” countries of the world.
    BTW, If you have something up your sleeve that is as energy dense as fossil fuels please let us know. I happen to own a small solar energy business and know that there are no alternative energy sources that even come close.
    We have been living in a 100 quad energy using society and will soon be living in a 25 quad world. Life can still be very good and high quality in this kind of world but it ain’t gonna be like it has been up until now…Radical paradigm change is already in the works.
    The times they are a changing and you’d better start swimming or you’ll sink stone.
    Cheers!

  10. Woody - March 3, 2010

    What you don’t seem to be able to speak to is the possibility of some degree of collapse of civilization. Sustainability is not assured just because dire consequences are possible if we don’t achieve it. Humanity is one of the greatest forces of change the earth has known and we can not ignore the possibility of enormous unintended consequences of our actions. We have to work toward sustainability because it’s clear that it’s the only way that we MIGHT be able to survive the next few centuries. That’s doubtless an overstatement. Humanity will find a way to continue on some level. But a much more primitive, survivalist worldwide culture following a very unpleasant decline is quite possible.

  11. Dan - March 3, 2010

    Bill Gates wealth and accomplishments have a persuasive aura for many who are not

  12. Rob Wilson - March 3, 2010

    I was only planning to comment in order to say nice piece and congratulate you on this gem: “”Asking for a worldwide movement of people voluntarily and significantly downgrading their lifestyle to spare the earth is to pray for an energy miracle far beyond anything Bill Gates can conceive.” but someone beat me too it.
    Instead I’ll risk responding to one of Fred’s points: there may not be anything else as energy dense as fossil fuels, but that’s really just a restatement of the problem, not evidence that it can’t be solved. Problem: we currently use fuels very high in energy and waste an awful lot of it, in the future we will need to use fuels less dense. Solution: Waste less energy – and that’s where technology comes in (and “policy, systems integration, infrastructure development, finance, and even social norms” as Adam says).
    Losing a rich source of energy doesn’t necessarily translate into zero growth or even decline unless we are actually putting it all towards a useful purpose, which we’re not.

  13. Jake Brown - March 3, 2010

    While its true that poor people tend to have more kids, it’s also true the rich people have the greatest climate impact. (probably correlated well with the magnitude of their wealth).
    100 million new poor people are probably less damaging than 1 million people in the US. (give or take a factor of 10, maybe).
    the population situation for the poor isn’t nearly as critical as getting rich people (that includes everyone on this forum, almost certainly) to stop being so damaging, and we have to do that through technological improvements – or we’ll run into the natural limits of our environment, and the rich will get poorer.
    i can drive down my personal contribution all i want, but as long as I participate in this economy, no matter my efficiency, I still have an impact bigger than a hundred people in the ‘lower’ billion.

  14. Anonymous - March 3, 2010

    Rob,
    “Problem: we currently use fuels very high in energy and waste an awful lot of it, in the future we will need to use fuels less dense. Solution: Waste less energy – and that’s where technology comes in (and “policy, systems integration, infrastructure development, finance, and even social norms” as Adam says).”
    Don’t get me wrong, I am most certainly not opposed to technology, energy conservation policy, systems integration and infrastructure development. Though there is one caveat and that is we need to be cognizant of the consequences of Jevon’s Paradox.
    However with regards finance, and social norms in their current forms, they are but a temporary aberration that is only possible with an abundance of cheap easily accessible energy.
    Therefore my insistence on the need for radical and fundamental paradigm change in societal and economic norms and how we integrate the two.
    We can’t continue to ignore the real long term financial costs of our exploitative activities. They must be added in and we have to transition to a full cost accounting system in all of our business enterprises.
    The old saw “There is no free lunch” is made very clear by the fundamental laws of thermodynamics and the complex synergies of our global ecosystems.
    We can only ignore these costs to our own long term detriment. There is no one to bail us out of our energy deficits. Nature will call those debts in without any remorse.
    Best hopes for an understanding of whole cost accounting based on scientific principles.
    “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”
    Richard Feynman

  15. David K. - March 3, 2010

    Good article. Perhaps it resonates because hope is in some ways an imperative as you get older.
    As predicted, people “smarter than I” began to deconstruct it in short order. A good case can be made for either extreme. Both involve some faith in the relevant parameters (with safe pessimism easily driving the limits to growth argument and boundless faith driving the “miracle solution”).
    But
    (1) We don’t really have a choice not to try.
    (2) Human nature must be factored into this. When people do not feel the tangible constraints, they cannot be harangued into unilateral sacrifices of lifestyle.
    #2 applies to both the comfortable suburban moderate and the “rat” (which I think speaks more to their predicament than any intrinsic lack of humanity… let’s not get our PC dander all up on this one).
    So, in the end, I think the less-partisan, more technocratic strategy probably has the best chance of success. Not that it’s “right”, but it is, at least in some schemes, possible. It also stands a wisp of a chance of actually winning some support before it would otherwise be “too late” in the pessimistic limits-to-growth view.
    I agree this has become too much of a cultural battle, but see that environmentalism is gaining mindshare. Of course, I am visiting Texas now and it is kind of depressing me…
    Best,

  16. vbstenswick - March 3, 2010

    Well here is an idea for anyone living in a northern climate. I heat my house with a ground source heat pump. These are very efficient heating devices that have a high upfront cost. What is needed is a bit of creative financing. What I would suggest is a PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) model, with loans (0%) to a homeowner for the loop field to be paid back over 100 years and for the heat pump itself over 20 years. I live in a Minneapolis suburb. I calculated the operating cost of my system to be equivalent to the best furnace on the market and natural gas at $4 per MMBtu. We will never see $4 natural gas at the home again. That price is before I pay extra for ‘green’ energy from our local “WindSource” program. I know someone will point out that with our current generation system, you may actually cause more pollution. That is true, but GSHP’s are probably the easiest way to move off of fossil fuels in the niche of residential home heating. That $4 figure above is based on our local utilities flat space heating rate of $0.05/kwh. It would be closer to $3 on their peak/off-peak rate. Their ‘green’ energy rate is variable between 0 and $0.035/kwh extra depending on the price of natural gas. For 2008 I paid an extra $0.007/kwh for green electricity. That would increase the natural gas equivalent price about 15%, so I heat my house for the equivalent of natural gas being $3.50 per MMBtu, or on a flat rate about $4.60 per MMBtu. Being on a peak/off-peak rate I get hit in the summer with higher AC costs.

  17. Geri - March 4, 2010

    Though I felt encouraged by this article, the phrase that worries me is “barring a disaster.” Every week there are disasters across the world that are impossible to factor in in advance.

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