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Lately, Bill Gates has been thinking about what he calls the “hard stuff” of climate change. He isn’t talking about the challenges that we usually discuss in this newsletter, such as how to generate zero-carbon electricity (use wind, solar, and some nuclear). Nor does he mean the associated political challenges of overcoming partisan opposition. No, he means the vital processes of industrial society for which we still have no zero-carbon alternative—the as-yet-unsolved engineering problems that are key to zeroing out global greenhouse-gas pollution.
Making concrete, for instance, causes 8 percent of the world’s carbon-dioxide pollution, and we have no way to do it cheaply in a climate-friendly way—that’s one of Gates’s hard problems. Heating and cooling buildings, which together emit 7 percent of greenhouse-gas pollution, are another. As is agriculture, responsible for nearly a fifth of global greenhouse-gas pollution each year.
These hard problems are at the center of Gates’s understanding of climate change and of his helpful new book, entitled How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. They’ve led him to found Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a $2 billion investment fund for companies that want to solve difficult climate-change problems. A few weeks ago, when I had the chance to ask him about them, he expounded on a principle that I will, with journalistic presumption, now call “the Gates Rule.” I think it is a useful tool, though not a perfect one, for understanding climate policy.
When we spoke by Zoom, I was interested in the comparative importance of this “hard stuff.” He was leaning back in his glass-walled office in Seattle; a harbor misted behind him. Say the United States had to decide, I said, between cutting greenhouse-gas pollution by using “easy” technologies like solar power and making progress on harder problems such as reducing the cost of steel? Which should it choose?
Gates is winsome but can be a meandering speaker; now he was blunt, and sat up. “Well, the second one is all that counts!” he said.
“The U.S. still has, you know, easily the majority of all the innovation power on the globe. And so when the U.S. innovates in steel, that's working on 100 percent of steel emissions,” he said. Subsidizing wind and solar deployment—which Gates calls working on the “easy stuff”—only reduces America’s dwindling share of global climate pollution, currently about 15 percent.
This is the Gates Rule: If given a choice of cutting emissions directly or reducing the cost of net-zero technology, the U.S. should choose the latter. American climate policy, in other words, should optimize for cost-reducing innovation, not for direct cuts in carbon pollution.
This is a more powerful idea than it may seem at first. When Republican leaders criticize climate policies, they tend to focus on America’s relatively small percentage of present-day climate pollution and the limited impact even ambitious climate policy will have on future global temperatures. (Here is Charles Koch, the conservative political donor, complaining that climate rules “will make very little difference in the future on what the temperature or weather will be.”) Defenders of U.S. policies sometimes reply that many small policies add up to a meaningful overall change, and that, anyway, when the fate of the world is at stake, every tenth of a degree matters.
The defenders are right—but they (and Koch, for all his laissez flair) overlook something far more important: the working of the global economy. American climate policy matters because the American economy matters, and because America remains the place where technologies are invented, marketed, and mainstreamed. Apple is here, of course, but so is the fracking industry, Disney, and Johnson and Johnson. You do not have to love modern-day capitalism to understand that America is an engine of global technological adoption. The prime goal of American climate policy is to harness that machine for the planet’s sake—to reduce the cost of climate-friendly technologies so that the rest of the world can adopt them.
Which brings us to the central and, I suspect, most enduring idea in Gates’s book—something he calls a “green premium.” A green premium is the cost difference between a newer, no-carbon technology and its older, dirtier equivalent. The electric Chevrolet Bolt, for instance, costs 10 more cents a mile to drive than a Chevy Malibu. Gates predicts that this premium will go to zero by 2030.
More concerning: Conventional jet fuel costs $2.22 a gallon but advanced biofuels cost $5.35, he says. This means aviation carries a green premium of 141 percent, so it requires more attention. Cargo ships pose an even bigger challenge: Electrifying their fuel source, a murky oil called “bunker fuel,” has a green premium of more than 600 percent.
While zeroing out a green premium will “by and large” resolve that industry’s climate problem, Gates writes in the book, that shift isn’t automatic. “There is usually a lag between the introduction of a new technology and its being deployed—particularly for something like home furnaces, which we don’t replace very often,” he writes in his book.
Green premiums allow a restatement of the Gates Rule: The goal of American climate policy should be to zero out green premiums as fast as possible, in as many industries as possible. To reach that goal, he is calling for government spending on energy and climate-related R&D to quintuple.
Now for the asterisks. In The New York Times this weekend, the climate activist (and the inventor of climate journalism) Bill McKibben criticized Gates for failing to grasp that wind and solar energy are now cheaper than fossil alternatives, meaning they carry negative green premiums—and yet are not being deployed anywhere near fast enough. Gates overlooks the importance of fossil-fuel opposition to net-zero energy, alleges McKibben.
And it is true that Gates’s politics are bloodless to the point of anemia. Near the end of our interview, I asked him: What should a young person do if they want to fight climate change? The “biggest contribution” they could make, he replied, is studying physics, chemistry, the economy, and the history of the industrial sector.
As for activism, he told me he sometimes jokes about the ultimate good that climate activism might do.
“Somebody asked me if these Extinction Rebellion people—you know, they cause traffic jams, fortunately not in the U.S. as much, but sometimes in the U.K.: Is that helpful? And I say, well, sure.
“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, then it’s just brilliant,” he said. “Because we forced the guy to sit there, and not drive, but work on this problem.”
Someone Else’s Weather
Our reader Nic Hawbaker shared these photos of a controlled burn of forest debris in Arizona.
“I live in Flagstaff, Arizona, where fortunately the forest service has been aggressively thinning the forest around our city,” he writes. “These slash piles sat in the forest for the past 2 to 3 years, and they finally burned them after a heavy snowfall when fire risk is lowest. It’s an eerie, beautiful sight seeing hundreds of bonfires burning in the winter outside your window for days on end.”
Nic was cross-country skiing with his daughter when he took these photos. Every week, I feature a weather photo from a reader or professional in this part of the newsletter, because the climate is someone else’s weather. If you would like to submit one, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
3 Helpful Resources About Texas’s Disaster
Millions of Texans are without power because a rare but not unprecedented winter storm has taken down the state’s power grid. This is a human catastrophe—the state’s homes are not designed to stay habitable without power for days of subfreezing temperatures—that also reveals a governance failure. The country’s two largest states can’t keep the lights on in high wind (in California’s case) or amid a polar vortex (in Texas’s). It’s striking and disconcerting: The power grid is a more important piece of infrastructure than the internet; it must become more crucial in the coming decades; and nobody seems to have good ideas about how to govern it.
Here are a few resources I’ve found helpful to understand the disaster:
1. “There are three grids in the Lower 48 states: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection—and Texas.” Why does Texas even have its own power grid in the first place? This explainer from The Texas Tribune describes how the architects of the Texas grid made sure it avoided crossing state lines in order to prevent the federal government from regulating it.
2. A talking point has developed that the Texas grid shut down because wind turbines iced over. While wind hasn’t performed spotlessly during the emergency, the state’s grid operator has now clarified that “frozen instruments at gas, coal, and nuclear plants” have caused the biggest problems. In other words, the state’s existing fossil-fuel-dependent infrastructure was not built to hold up in sustained subfreezing weather. Supplies of natural gas also seem to be limited. If you’re on Twitter, I recommend following the Princeton professor Jesse Jenkins and the Rice University professor Daniel Cohan, who have been live-tweeting data from the power grid through the crisis.
3. One of the weirdest aspects of this event is that Texas’s grid can withstand surges of power demand during the summer—even when the grid’s 26 million customers all want to run their air conditioners at once. Why can Texas’s grid hold up in the summer but not the winter? Joshua Rhodes, an energy scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, explains in a useful Forbes piece that electric cooling is an easier problem than heating, at least in Texas.
In order to make a Texas dwelling comfortable and safe in 100-degree-Fahrenheit heat—say, to bring it to 70 degrees Fahrenheit—an AC unit must lower the indoor temperature by 30 degrees. But with overnight lows in Austin touching 10 degrees, heaters must now raise interior temperatures by 60 degrees to reach the same level. “Keep in mind,” he writes, “our homes are designed with insulation for a 30F differential and a preference for shedding heat, not a 60F differential with a desire to retain heat.”
Climate advocates often say that our infrastructure isn’t designed for the climate (or the growing society) of the future. But Texas shows that it’s not designed particularly well for the present either.
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