Letter from the Chair, Spring 2021

John Wilkerson
John Wilkerson, Chair

I would like to recommend Bill Gates’ new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. It’s a short and informative introduction to one of the most important issues of the 21st century. The book clearly explains the global carbon challenge - that world demand for energy, food and material improvements will continue to grow. Gates views this as a good thing because so much of the world currently lacks access to things we in the U.S. take for granted, such as reliable electrical power and clean water (well, except for Texas).

The consumers and governments in less developed countries will be even more reluctant than those in developed nations to pay a ‘green premium’ for products and services with lower carbon emissions. For this reason, Gates argues that we can only get to zero carbon emissions by 2050 through technological innovation.

Coming from anyone else, putting our faith in technologies that do not currently exist hardly sounds like a solution. But Gates is optimistic. As a software entrepreneur and philanthropist he has a lot of experience with innovation (yes, an understatement). And we have seen recently what a public-private commitment can produce. Vaccines usually take around ten years to develop. In less than a year, several effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines have been developed and distributed, well ahead of what even the experts initially thought was possible.

Solar, wind, carbon pricing, conservation, adaptation etc. are all important, but they will not get us to net zero due to increasing demand and reluctance to pay green premiums. In the U.S., government funding for climate-related research ($7 billion) is currently one-fifth of the National Institutes of Health budget and represents less than 1/10th of one percent of the federal budget. Gates thinks we should be spending just as much on Climate R&D as we spend on the NIH (about 2/10ths of one percent of the budget) and offers recommendations for how to make the most of that spending.

The elephant in the room throughout the book, as one might expect, is politics. Innovation requires a sustained government and private sector commitment. The shared sense of purpose that produced vaccines in less than a year does not currently exist for climate change in the U.S.  Gates doesn’t provide an answer (who does?) but he does demonstrate political awareness.  Perhaps the most intriguing possibility in terms of bringing Republicans and Democrats together is that the country that leads in developing affordable zero emissions solutions is going to sell a lot of products.

We hope that you will rsvp and join us on May 4th for our Spring Faculty Panel, Biden Faces the World: American Foreign Policy in a post Trump era.

 

 John Wilkerson

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