Screenshot of the The Atlantic magazine's interview with Bill Gates, 'We Need an Energy Miracle', in the November 2015 issue. Photo: The Atlantic

Guest post by Richard Pauli
24 October 2015

(Desdemona Despair) – Bill Gates has a new interview on the web site of The Atlantic magazine. Many will read it because it's Bill Gates, but I suspect he positioned himself there because of public pressure to take a stand on global warming.

Bill Gates now faces growing public criticism on his foundation holdings of carbon fuel stocks. The call is for divestment (Bill Gates calls fossil fuel divestment a 'false solution' and Revealed: Gates Foundation's $1.4bn in fossil fuel investments). Until recently, he used to be more of a “don't seem to care much” global warming denialist. In 2009, in one of the last paper runs of the Seattle Post Intelligencer, I severely criticized the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in an op-ed ("Prodding the Sacred Cow"). The online publication received storms of counter opinions so strong and irrational that the PI pulled the comments from the online archived version. It was if I poked a bear and my essay greatly moved his response on this issue.

But Bill Gates is the master of using his persona competitively. And he proves in his interview that he grasps at least the structure of system complexity about global warming. Perhaps he gets it because software is structured with co-operating subroutines - much like the earth systems of atmosphere, ocean, ice melt, and all other variables that define the full scope of the global warming problem. Full disclosure, I worked at Microsoft in the days before Bill Gates discovered the Internet. Now, after I have audited six courses in global warming at the University of Washington, and after a decade or so of study to this issue, I judge that he has not yet fully grasped the science around complex system sub-routines of our human-caused planetary state of errant heating.

And he is so far off, that I would label his interview a "beta release" – meaning his statements may be released to the public but is not not yet ready to be fully promoted to a version 1.0  public statement.

I used to be a tester on Windows 3.1, and now I feel compelled to file a few bug reports on my former leader's message. In the software industry – a specific bug is identified and discussed for fixing. So in his code review, I  must first call out a high-severity, bad data bug: Weak information – Bill Gates should get his science advisers to vet his statements … or should get climate scientists on board. It feels like his message is not well composed. Deploying his legal pad and a pencil is a baby step.

He begins his headline, "We Need an Energy Miracle", to exclaim his belief in the miracles of research and development and a carbon tax. Those are great ideas for the year 2000 – but calling for R&D is magical thinking for such a high-risk problem. Deploying a non-existent decarbonization tool and a carbon tax is a small nudge of the global warming monster. With heroic calls to action, he wants us to invent our way out of this mess, but fails to mention anything involving reform – just tossing a phrase of "governments are inept." He might have touched on simple suggestions like repealing subsidization of the oil and gas industry,  incentivizing less energy consumption, or true-cost accounting on the use of coal and all carbon fuels, or many other simple, inconvenient, and disruptive changes that are inevitable.

Bill Gates can be excused for not staying current on climate issues.  Watch the recent lecture by Kevin Anderson. Professor Anderson makes it clear that it’s more likely the world will reach four degrees Celsius, and two degrees is possible only with universal, superhuman commitment. Further, even to avoid four degrees, most of the world should be close to zero emissions by 2030. Not 2050, as Gates named.

Now, I realize my alarmist tone. And I might counter in a similar, off-the-cuff manner, that Bill Gates saying we have until 2050 as well, might be a tad extravagant, luxurious, and should be footnoted. I can’t find sources for his recommendation, so you’re left with investigating on your own.  I suggest consulting any climate scientist, or sites like  SkepticalScience or RealClimate or even YouTube for insights into whether we face a kick-back-and-relax date of 2050 or a get-to-work-now deadline of 2030. Bill must know that any scientist would be happy to take his call for advice.

Bug reports are not supposed to praise, but kudos must go to Bill for his succinct: “If you’re not bringing math skills to the problem … then representative democracy is a problem.“ I suppose he might include the ramification of the Laws of Science so often discovered with math and data. And it does seem that Bill gets it about how much current commitments are failing:

“… they fall dramatically short of the reductions required to reduce CO2 emissions enough to prevent a scenario where global temperatures rise two degrees Celsius. I mean, these commitments won’t even be a third of what you need … everything that’s hard has been saved for post-2030 and even these 2030 commitments aren’t enough. And many of them won’t be achieved.”

Bug: Not promoting your most important statement right off the top

“… this one is a world problem. Carbon is not a local pollutant. It mixes in the global atmosphere in a matter of days. So it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a coal plant in China or a coal plant in the U.S. The heating effect for the entire globe is the same.”

This is the most powerful message Bill Gates could deliver.

Bug: Optimism Bias

"The world 30 years from now is going to consume twice as much energy as it does now."

Yeah, well, maybe – but not if we continue blasting carbon emissions. Global warming is well known to be caused by human industrial carbon emissions. Scientists will admit they cannot predict changes to the exact date, like 2045. Some scientists think we may have over a foot of sea level rise by then. But most all will say that continuing much more carbon emission for than a few years is suicidal. Right now, we are on the brink of evaluating methane emissions so great that they will blow our entire budget for continued carbon emissions. As if we are a bunch of Boy Scouts trying to put out a fire that could grow twice as big, we don't want to put more gasoline on it. The first thing we do is stop making the situation worse.

Bug: Your belief that only huge corporations can play

"But it’s not at all clear that we will get grid-scale economic storage. We’re more than a factor of 10 away from the economics to get that."

Well Bill, perhaps solar on the roof-top, plus energy conservation,  and bring in big-government laws requiring high insulation building codes.

The Gates interview has a fundamental bug of promoting the idea that only a form of innovative capitalism can save the world. He warns investors to expect less, but as long as money men can reap something it will be OK. But the open source movement that delivered the Linux operating system is essentially free. And is run throughout the business world, I think versions are deployed on most of Amazon computers and many web servers at your ISP. Linux is a triumphant example of something you can either call communism or non-profit capitalism.

Open-source problem solving will be included in finding innovative responses to global warming, whether Bill Gates wants it or not.

An interruption about the ads for this story in The Atlantic:

On my browser screen, on every page, the text was interrupted with many slick animated banner ads from Boeing, selling military planes. Nice of them to sponsor this,  but aircraft are part of the problem. Already the entire aeronautical industry has been removed from facing any pain at the Paris talks.


Their industry sector is off the table. So no curtailment of flights, no airport taxes, no extra taxes on flying planes directly above functional railroad transit systems. Reducing all aviation, including military, is inevitable.  Boeing wants to keep going, but they should be making high-speed trains instead.

Psst, Boeing knows that advertising influences cognitive bias.

Bug:  No interconnection with the population issue

"… the world is going to consume much more energy 30 years from now than it does today."

Population is linked with global warming causes – or at least the population of the 1% that manage to use 80% of the energy used in the world. BTW, I thought the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was doing great work on family planning issues. Why not ramp that up to the goal of zero population growth? Besides, in 30 years agriculture scientists tell us crop yields will be less than today.

Bug: Calling out electric cars as bogus 

"… because the electricity infrastructure is emitting more CO2 than you would have if you’d had a gasoline-powered car."

Solution:  Not when you quit demanding a huge electric infrastructure to deliver energy. Each distribution point sucks revenue and loses energy. Better idea is the (heretical to an industrial capitalist) notion to build solar, wind, fuel cell, or other energy sources on the resident and building rooftops. Why build power poles and distribution stations when you can make it at home? Unless you complain about energy companies losing profit. (Have you divested yet?) Hmm. Australia has so many off-grid homes, why can't we have half as many?.

Bug: On what it will take to accelerate the transition from carbon-emitting energy

“Realistically, we may not get more than a doubling in government funding of energy R&D, but I would love to see a tripling, to $18 billion a year from the U.S.”

Tokenism. We can only adapt and mitigate. It sounds like you are asking for subsidization of old systems while we try to invent something yet undiscovered. How about the Jim Hansen proposal for a progressive gas tax? Then add another tax for anything that is not somehow deploying alternative energy. Think bigger. Don't tell us to rely on miracles because a little public-private sector dilettante investments is just not going to cut it. I'm OK with awarding you credit for trying to think of new things … but more realistic is Bill Nye, who said, "we need to do everything, all at once."

Bug: On the dangerous certainty of environmentalists

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in this, but on both the good and the bad side.”

Wrong, because  there is great certainty of the dangers discovered by the science of atmospheric science and oceanography and basic physics and chemistry. Anyone can use any reason to ignore the seriousness – including your objection to the tone of the message, but the facts are correct, the situation more dire than the public generally understands, and Bill Gates is dangerously minimizing the risk with this statement.

Global warming does not care what anyone believes.

Solution:  change your words.

Bug: Wrong use of terms

“Like, in the near term, the Pacific oscillation, this El Niño thing, has a much bigger impact on current weather than climate change has had so far. Now, climate change keeps climbing all the time – it just keeps summing, summing, summing, and adding up. So, as you get up to 2050, 2080, 2100, its effect overwhelms the Pacific oscillation.”

That's half correct. You got trapped by the right-wing campaign to conflate the phrases "Climate Change" and "Global Warming". They are totally different. Each word is different. And to toss in "this El Niño thing" as disconnected just breaks your entire systems analysis. The intensity of “this El Niño thing” is an expression of the increased heat taken up by oceans as the globe heats up from anthropogenic global warming. Worldwide, all of the climates will change as the globe heats. Global warming will destabilize climates and they will change. Many weather events define climates; if there is different weather, you may then call it a changed climate. Climate change is the parent data set to weather. Not the cause. And climate change doesn't climb. Global temperatures climb.

Bug: Stop calling for miracles.  

“And when you put all those requirements together, we need an energy miracle. That may make it seem too daunting to people, but in science, miracles are happening all the time.”

What is it with all these miracle things?  What kind of evangelist are you? This famous cartoon illustrates it well.

Bug: Vaclav Smil should not be your only source for your thinking on climate.

While he is smart, innovative, and a great energy economist, you invoke his words too casually for climate issues.  From a simple essay, and one video, I can't see him talk much about climate.  He is great about energy policy. See Revolution? More like a crawl and Drivers of environmental change: focus on energy transitions.

If you want the history of global warming science clearly explained, then you, or anyone, might read  Spencer Weart's History of Climate Change. It's assigned as a college text and free to read online. Weart now teaches at Harvard.

Then too, many great climate scientists run the best web site on the subject: RealClimate, which is devoted to bridging the gap between the scientists and the lay citizen. Their archive is extensive and the posts are geeky and challenging, but not overly technical. You could handle it. The current post is Climate change is coming to a place near you.

Thanks, Bill Gates, you are on the right track. After you fix these bugs and fully divest, your Version 2 message will be much better.

Richard Pauli, aka Rantman, is also author of  Climate Manifesto – a constantly changing and widely ignored document.


  1. gail zawacki said...

    A wonderful read, Richard! Thanks to Des for posting it. Ahem - Real Climate would be a lot better if they would stop pretending that methane isn't a problem. Just a small, potential, problem.  

  2. mike roddy said...

    Nice essay, Richard. I suggest you print it, put it in a certified mail package, and send it to Gates.

    He might wake up, but has too much ego to admit that he changed because of you. If we see a good result, you will deserve a major prize.  

  3. Anonymous said...

    "Real Climate would be a lot better if they would stop pretending that methane isn't a problem" Sister, I know ALL about the problem of methane.  

  4. Batalos said...

    Global systemic collaps of our civilisation is inevitable unless some miracle happens. So Gates' message could be right, he just might not grasp the full picture like almost everyone though he does grasp it on quite a high level.
    The predicament we face just couldnt be solved within our current socialeconomic system. And the system is going to live until the limits to growth (climate change is just one of the first ones) will crash it by force of the laws of nature (or by some other force which is unlikely)  


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