Bill Gates and his Writing Partners

I’ve just read Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. I’ll begin by making clear my enormous admiration for Gates. He could have used his enormous wealth in the idiotic or narcissistic ways some of his fellow billionaires have (buying sports team, building the biggest toys, dabbling in personal cryonics) but he has used his foundation to advance humanity’s response to the most significant health and environmental challenges.

I don’t know a lot about climate science or policy but want to learn; I found this book very enlightening. Gates very clearly lays out the case for achieving net zero carbon emissions globally by mid-century, shows the magnitudes of the different sources of emissions (electricity, manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, and heating and cooling) and discusses the prospects for technologies that could bring about zero emissions for each one. The dust jacket describes Gates first as a “technologist” and his enthusiasm for technology is compelling. I did read environmentalist Bill McKibben’s recent review in The New York Times. McKibben is much more optimistic about the prospects for solar and wind power than Gates, and I hope McKibben is right.

Climate Change Politics

McKibben also criticizes Gates for his self-declared tendency to “think more like an engineer than a political scientist,” (p. 14) which as a political scientist I certainly noted. Gates isn’t politically naïve; rather he is arguing for a bipartisan approach to climate change in a country where one political party is still a hotbed of climate change denial. His title “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” is chosen to create a sense of urgency even Republicans cannot deny.

One example of a policy that would diminish greenhouse gas emissions is increasing public transit ridership, perhaps incentivized by road pricing. Gates discusses municipal government’s role in moving to a carbonless economy, which includes buying electric buses, using zoning laws to increase population density, and possibly restricting road access by fossil-fuel-powered vehicles (p. 214). All these are steps in the right direction, but still stop short of shifting ridership from automobiles, even if they are electric, to public transit.

Gates is supportive of carbon pricing, but sees it as an option for state government, rather than the federal government (pp. 210-213), which strikes me as insufficiently ambitious and unlikely to succeed because of the free-rider problem. Why would one subnational jurisdiction unilaterally increase prices of a wide range of goods and services, if it derives no immediate benefit?

Gates looks abroad to justify his lukewarm advocacy of carbon pricing, writing “We’ve already seen example after example around the world – Canada, the Philippines, Brazil, Australia, France, and others – in which the public makes clear with their votes and their voices that they don’t want to pay more for gasoline, heating oil, and other basics.” This sentence is written without any reference given (p. 215). Recent events in Canada don’t support Gates’s pessimism: the Trudeau Government imposed a carbon tax and was re-elected in 2019, and the carbon tax does have public support.

Overall, my conclusion is that Gates puts too much emphasis on technological solutions and not enough on behavioral ones, especially those in which pricing is one aspect of a strategy to create incentives.

Team Gates

One technology, broadly defined, that I know a fair bit about is knowledge production. I always read a book’s acknowledgements section because it hints at how the knowledge was produced. The author of a typical academic book would thank his/her funding agency, department, research assistant(s), anonymous reviewers, acquiring editor, copyeditor, indexer, and colleagues who may have offered advice or encouragement. The acknowledgments make clear that Gates’s book is a much bigger undertaking, akin to the memoirs of a head-of-state. (Long ago, Churchill employed a team of research assistants and ghost-writers.) Gates thanks one “writing partner,” 4 climate change advisers, one research/consulting firm, 3 people working on charts and production, 2 climate scientists and their 3 postdoctoral students, one editor, two people in promotions, and one manager of the entire process.

This leads to two questions. First, who was postdoc who researched the carbon tax in Canada and how did (s)he reach that questionable conclusion? Second, and more significantly, what exactly is a “writing partner”? Is this a euphemism for ghost-writer? In the academic world, I have writing partners, but I call them “co-authors.” Does Gates think his book would be diminished by having another name on the cover, even if it were proceeded by “with” rather than “and”?

These quibbles aside, Team Gates has produced a valuable introduction to climate change technology and policy, and I warmly (increasingly warmly!) recommend it.

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