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Bill Gates doesn't have much to add on climate change

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is Bill Gates' first foray into climate policy, and deserves scrutiny.


I have not read Bill Gates' new book: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. From what I've read about it, however, it doesn't seem like there would be much for me to gain from doing so. Reviews, excerpts, and Gates' own words in interviews point to there being very little original content in the book.

Admittedly, Gates puts a special focus on "green premiums," which gives the book the appearance of an argument as opposed to a distillation of policy orthodoxy. Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic even called it the "Gates' Rule." But the idea of green premiums is fairly simple: green technologies cost more than dirty ones, and we need to close that gap to get anywhere.

This is intuitive and true, and the "one thing" that Gates wants people to take away form his book. His ideas and how to lower those premiums, however, leave much to be desired. His proposal comes in two parts: "Reduce the costs of zero-carbon alternatives," primarily through R&D, and "charge for the hidden costs of pollution."

When it comes to reducing costs, his focus on R&D is telling of his simplistic view of the climate crisis. An exclusive focus on R&D is based on the assumption that, if we had the technology to solve the climate crisis, it would have been solved already. He believes that what we need are business leaders and innovators (like Gates himself) to receive more funding so that they can solve the climate crisis behind closed doors, and then let the free market take it from there.

The problems with this view are twofold:

1. New technologies are not always adopted, even if they are cheaper. Wind and solar are already cheaper than fossil fuels, yet their share of energy production is not surging.

2. We do not have the time to wait until every zero-carbon technology is cheaper than its dirty alternative.

Established interests, like the oil and gas industry, are very hard to dislodge, even when they are competing against cheaper green alternatives. Established fossil fuel interests have cleared entry costs that green upstarts have not. They benefit from economies of scale because they are decades old, and have built relationships with important institutions over time.

Besides, even if established fossil fuel interests can be dislodged by the price mechanism alone, this will take far too long. What is necessary is not allowing the market to reinvent itself by spurring innovation, but rapidly redirecting the economy with subsidies and divestment from fossil fuel interests. On divestment, Gates scoffs at activists who thought that "divestment alone" would solve the climate crisis (activists in general have a more holistic view than Gates). It's unsurprising that subsidies don't figure prominently either, as this probably constitutes market meddling in Gates' eyes.

The second half of Gates' market-centric "green premium" reduction plan is also lacking in originality and complexity. "Charging for the hidden costs of pollution" (AKA carbon pricing) is underwhelming policy, and already exists in Canada, the EU, and California among others. It is based on the idea that the suffering engendered by climate change can be quantified, and added to the price of fossil fuels. This "social cost of carbon" model is once again merely an exercise in market adjustment, but a particularly insulting one given that people's lives are being given a dollar value.

This plan is essentially neoliberal orthodoxy, and is limited in scope by the sanctity of the free market. Carbon pricing is already in place in many nations, and R&D is funded generously in the United States. Given that the book does not go into more depth or add nuance to this orthodoxy, it is worth questioning what it is trying to accomplish.

The answer is concision itself. Gates' website proudly proclaims that the book is "just 230 pages," and it is admittedly hard to find a more concise distillation of policy orthodoxy than that. The hope is that people, attracted by the concision of the book and its author's reputation, will become a bit more knowledgeable on climate policy.

But the approach to climate policy Gates is teaching these readers, in addition to being unoriginal, is insufficient. Relying entirely on R&D and carbon pricing, as opposed to subsidies, regulations, and fossil fuel divestment, is not going to solve climate change. Gates touches on these things in his book, and believes they are part of the solution. But his attitude in interviews betrays a disdain for these more "radical" approaches.

Readers of his book may also come away with a new contempt for those activists who are pushing for rapid change. In one interview, he says that climate protestors can only help "If there’s a guy in that traffic jam who happens to have a pencil and a piece of paper, and he takes his time to invent a new way of making steel." From atop the world's third tallest ivory tower, Bill Gates sees the work done by activists largely as a distraction.

At best, I would say that Gates is passionate and driven in the fight against climate change, and wants to lend his legitimacy to what he -- only somewhat correctly -- believes to be the best way to do that. At worst, he (neither a climate scientist nor policy expert) has taken the standard neoliberal approach to climate change, reframed it, slapped his name on it, and called it an original and nuanced argument. There is truth in both of these perspectives, but people as influential as he is deserve scrutiny.

Bill Gates can do more to fight climate change as an individual than just about anyone. But while he has a lot to contribute, he may want to take a step back from the pulpit that his wealth has offered him: He just doesn't have that much to add.

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