Gates vs Mann; one of them is right

  •   5 min reads
Gates vs Mann; one of them is right

Bill Gates says one thing about climate change, Michael E Mann, the world-leading climatologist, says something different. The billionaire and expert present solutions to climate change; one of them is right, is the other wrong though, and who do we believe?

We live in the cult of the billionaire. Who do you trust, the expert or the billionaire? "We have had enough of experts," said the British politician Michael Gove, and those sentiments seem to sum up the attitudes of the time. Maybe it was the failure of economists to predict the 2008 crash that set the tone, but the author of this article would like to cite his father speaking many decades ago: "Beware of experts," he used to say. This aversion to expertise is not new; it is merely newly respectable.

By contrast, or so goes the logic, billionaires, have proven their ability in the only way that matters, by making money. Take this article, focusing on the wisdom of Warren Buffett. It cites Buffet saying: "Maybe you know a former student who spent years and lots of money to get a degree in a field that he or she was passionate about, only to find that it was very difficult to make a living," stated the article's author. If you had the wisdom of the billionaire, you would not have wasted your time studying something that has limited financial benefit, goes the argument.

By the standards of most billionaires, Bill Gates is rich. Very rich, richer than most billionaires and not by a little, by a lot. Don't get us wrong, we at Techopian like his altruism. If you were a well-meaning billionaire, would you just hand the money over to good causes or voluntarily pay more tax, or would you take an active role in using your money to do good? So we like Mr Gates and what he trying to do with all his money.

However, should being rich really be the sole criteria by which we judge someone? What's wrong with taking a degree in a subject about which you care deeply? According to the above cited article, the Buffett philosophy has no time for the passionate entrepreneur, working all hours under the sun on a project with limited financial potential.

The tactics have changed: they no longer say climate change is a myth. Instead, they say, 'don't worry, we have the technology to reverse its effects'

Michael E Mann is an expert, the real deal and a boffin. He is the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. He pioneered the famous hockey stick graph as a way to produce reconstructed data on climate over the last 600 years.

His books are widely read and admired. And he has been a target of climate change deniers, who have stopped at nothing to try and discredit his work. You know the type, blonde hair, big opinions on nothing substantial, have a fetish for building walls ...

Mann's latest book, The New Climate War: the fight to take back our planet, is both optimistic and pessimistic. Mann suggests that climate change deniers have mutated into delayers.

The tactics have changed. They no longer say climate change is a myth. Instead, they say: "Don't worry, we have the technology to reverse its effects" – technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration and now geoengineering, involving small aerosols in the atmosphere reflecting some sunlight.

Mann lumps these solutions into a bucket he calls 'moral hazard' — a concept central banks like to cite when describing monetary policy. Carbon capture and sequestration and geoengineering deal with the symptoms. They require permanent application of the technology and are fraught with risks and could lead to uneven consequences of carbon emissions — on average, temperatures may not rise by much, but some regions may suffer enormously.

The delayers are clever; they use well tried and tested marketing techniques and frame their arguments using descriptions such as clean energy, as distinct from renewable energy.

Clean energy can include biofuels and nuclear.

The second problem is that Mann and Jacobson are experts

Techopian is not a fan of nuclear, as we explain here. But it is good to see others express similar sentiments: See Small Modular Nuclear Reactors Are Mostly Bad Policy

As part of this framing, renewables are hailed as providing false hope. Techopian is a big renewables fan: see our clean energy section

Mann is also a fan of renewables and cites the work of Mark Zachary Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, who has written innumerable papers and books to make his point.

There are two problems. Firstly, the renewable revolution runs contra to the interests of fossil fuel companies. This is part of a wider problem. Technologies that support more efficient use of resources; not just renewables, but ideas like the sharing of autonomous cars (robo taxis), or applying the Internet of Things to reduce food waste, or even cultured meat, are not so good for corporations such as fossil fuel companies, car manufacturers and food companies. And so they resist.

The second problem is that Mann and Jacobson are experts.

Net zero is a very clever way of saying 'we can continue to put carbon into the atmosphere if we can take it out.


Bill Gates, goes the argument that forms part of the cult of the billionaire, isn't one of those experts; instead, he is a rich and that gives him proper expertise, not the type whose expertise is measured in certificates and cited papers, the type whose expertise is measured in dollars, euros, pounds, yen and yuans!

Bill Gates is very clever and undeniably well-meaning.

The words coal, gas and oil were "missing from the Paris agreement."

He is not always right, however. He was, for example, slow to spot the significance of the internet.

He famously said: "We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten."

But we all fall victims to the phenomenon Gates describes, including Gates himself.

In his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, Bill Gates advocates geoengineering and nuclear.

Mann says: "Net zero is a very clever way of saying 'we can continue to put carbon into the atmosphere if we take it out.'" As Tzeporah Berman says in an interview with Mann, the words coal, gas and oil were "missing from the Paris agreement."

Mann suggests that Gates has become an advocate of net-zero or cleantech; that he has adopted the framing of the delayers, thereby becoming a de facto spokesperson for their cause.

But Gates is a billionaire; Mann merely an expert. Big bucks are riding on the net-zero approach; by contrast, renewables are efficient and may ultimately lead to super-cheap or even free energy. What are the commercial interests in that? If the source is free to all, it's only the infrastructure that is costly and that covers its own cost in years, not decades.

The above Gates comment about overestimating change in the short run but underestimating it in the longer term is not complete. He also said: "Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction."

But the Gates approach to climate change is advocating delay — because technology can reverse it all. In a way, he is failing to follow his own advice and advises being lulled into inaction.

The billionaire effect will tell. More people will read the Gates book than the Mann book because the cult of the billionaire is what we have today.

But net-zero and cleantech solutions are based on a false set of beliefs and may send us down the wrong way. What we need is a renewable revolution, a revolution that will ultimately lead to cheap energy, which will support developing countries and provide the backbone of technologies that are not currently possible because of the high cost of energy. Instead, we are in danger of going down the net-zero route; the result will be more philanthropist billionaires, but we will be worse off as a society.

Image credit: Bill Gates

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