My Take on the New Bill Gates Book
One Thing I loved, and One I Did Not.
A couple of weeks ago, I took some time off. A vacation of sorts. For me that basically meant exercising in the morning and then spending the day alternating between work and sports— outdoors as much as possible. Luckily for me, Bill Gates’s much anticipated How To Avoid A Climate Disaster had just come out, and I was anxious to dig in.
Bill Gates is an admirable thinker, and the clarity of his mind comes across in the book. He approaches the issues like an engineer—methodical, working his way through each argument, breaking it down, and showing his work. I like his simple framework: what do we know, what do we need to, what are the obstacles. We could use more of this type of problem-solving in the environmental world.
Others have done a good job reviewing the entire book, so I won’t do that here. But since so many readers of The Instigator are likely engaging with this important work, I did want to share two main takeaways—a point I strongly agree with and one I don’t.
I really liked how Gates emphasizes that society should seek to achieve climate progress at the lowest cost possible. In discussing each possible climate strategy, he hammers away at what he calls the “green premium”—ie, how much more expensive would it be (at least in the short- and medium-term) than just continuing on with business as usual. And if the premiums are really high, then he advocates for acknowledging that and making a plan to overcome it.
You might say, isn’t it obvious that we need to do things as inexpensively as possible?
And I would respond, you’d think so.
But when we talk about environmental solutions, cost is often undervalued and under-discussed. I am astounded by how many prominent environmentalists and academics disregard (at best) or chastise (at worst) any concern for the underlying economics.
In my view, it’s crucial that we are cost-conscious in our climate solutions for two important and related reasons.
Lower costs make environmental solutions more just.
It’s imperative that the environmental transition we seek be a just transition.
There’s a tendency among enviros to think that when we’re trying to lower costs, we’re just trying to save business a few dollars. But that's wrong. When costs increase, businesses mostly pass them on to the end customer. It’s usually those members of society who are least able to bear those costs who end up being most burdened by them. This is something environmentalists shouldn’t ignore. For environmental progress to be just, we need to protect the most vulnerable among us from additional hardship. One important way to do that is by keeping the overall costs of climate strategies down as much as possible. It’s one reason I’m encouraged by private sector solutions—they usually emphasize strategies that keep costs low.
Lower cost solutions are the ones that are most likely to get political support.
Fighting climate change is hard. We need much better public policy to reach our goals. To do so, we need more people on board. We’ll only attract a lot of people to our cause if it seems fair. Keeping costs down is one essential part of doing that. Regressive climate policies are unlikely to ever gain majority support.
By the way, these things are interdependent. The more just the anticipated outcomes, the more likely we can garner widespread support, and the more likely we can actually make progress happen.
Great, so Bill and I generally agree on the cost point. But there is a place where we diverge.
Bill is a tech guy. So it’s no surprise he argues that increased demand for climate solutions will result in technology-based innovation. In some places, he thinks it's more likely than others, but he warns us not to underestimate what innovators can do.
That’s great. We need breakthrough strategies to achieve our climate goals, and it’s remarkable what humankind can achieve in the marketplace. But technology is not the only place where we can innovate.
I was disappointed to find that Bill gave short shrift to nature-based solutions. As I’ve argued in my book, and more recently here, there is huge opportunity in climate solutions rooted in nature—especially carbon removal.
Bill’s primary reason for dismissing nature-based solutions seems to be that they’re not permanent and that we need to use nature for other things, such as food. What he doesn’t seem to grasp is that the same innovation he anticipates for technology is also likely in the world of nature-based solutions. I expect that, as we unleash demand for nature-based removal, there will be lots of innovation that will lower costs, improve quality, and importantly, increase supply.
But I guess we all have our blind spots, don’t we? When Bill sees the light on nature-based removals, I hope he calls me.
While I wait by the phone, let me know your take.
Have you read the book? Comment below and let me know what you think.
Sorry, but GHG emission reduction is not going at all well. I don’t want to be negative or pessimistic—just eyes wide open. Yes, COVID-linked economic weakness allowed for a decline in global emissions in 2020. But Stanford scientists expect them to start increasing again very soon. What should we do? Try harder I guess. But also be open to new strategies like carbon removal.
Speaking of new strategies, the Economist reports that “Seagrasses and mangroves can suck carbon from the air.” Yes, they can. A perfect example of where demand for nature-based carbon removal can yield big gains for climate progress.
Want more on the opportunity for mangroves to remove carbon, provide protection from storms and climate change, etc.? Here’s my take. Great opportunity for Bill Gates to invest in (nature-based) technology.
One More Thing
“Admit ignorance and ask dumb questions.” My friend—the brilliant Niko Canner— argues that this subtle technique is in fact a sure-fire way to succeed. He draws this important lesson here from none other than Napoleon himself. Good advice for enviros. Try it and let us know what happens.
Well written. Agreed with your points. However, cost is a sticky issue. In my perspective, the problem is sometimes we miss the point of the environment as an externality. So “true” cost is not apparent in the system and therefore bad choices made. To get us to better solutions and really get the case clear to Gates re NCS, we need strong policy to price nature and carbon into the system. This may actually end up in “higher cost” but that price will better reflect costs to humanity (and help us use the market to find the most efficient solutions).
Bill Gates’s insights and grasp of complex systems (disease, poverty, education) is impressive. I haven’t read the book but I’d expect the same holistic clarity from him on the environment. You’ve pointed out a paradox and possible gap: massive innovation can also be applied to nature-based solutions. My guess is he’s persuadable. If presented with strong “ROI” on particular methods (e.g., Salk Institute’s Plants Harnessing Initiative, something similar for the oceans), his response would be interesting.