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.