Al Gore and Bill Gates on Investing in Clean-Energy 'Moon Shots'
March 7, 2016 12:21 AM   Subscribe

The case for optimism on climate change - "I'll finish with this story. When I was 13 years old, I heard that proposal by President Kennedy to land a person on the Moon and bring him back safely in 10 years. And I heard adults of that day and time say, 'That's reckless, expensive, may well fail.' But eight years and two months later, in the moment that Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, there was great cheer that went up in NASA's mission control in Houston. Here's a little-known fact about that: the average age of the systems engineers, the controllers in the room that day, was 26, which means, among other things, their age, when they heard that challenge, was 18." (via; previously)

Bill Gates, the 'Impatient Optimist', Lays Out his Clean-Energy Innovation Agenda - "Bill Gates discusses the investment and research efforts he's pursuing to energize societies without overheating the climate." [1,2,3]
In this campaign and investment effort, Gates is valuably building on the years-long push for an energy revolution by Richard E. Smalley, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and, even while fighting a losing battle with leukemia, crisscrossed the nation pressing for a space-shot-scale boost in research and development on technologies that can power planetary prosperity without overheating the climate. (Please take the time to watch the 2003 lecture Smalley gave at Columbia University; this talk shaped my own reporting, helping result in my first long piece, in 2006, on the glaring clean-energy research gap.)

In our conversation, Gates described the next steps for the Breakthrough Energy Coalition that was launched in Paris and surveyed the technologies he sees as most needed.

He also addressed concerns expressed by some energy investors who say energy miracles are already occurring with deployment of today’s solar, wind and other non-polluting energy technologies... Here’s the full conversation we had, both the video and a transcript with some light editing for syntax and clarity, some contextual links added by me, some related artwork and culminating reflections.
also btw...
-Mission Innovation: Accelerating the Clean Energy Revolution [1,2,3]
-Why The Renewables Revolution Is Now Unstoppable
-How Far Can Renewables Go? Pretty Darn Far
-Why I'm Starting the First AngelList Cleantech Syndicate
-The Planet-Saving, Capitalism-Subverting, Surprisingly Lucrative Investment Secrets of Al Gore
-Gorgeous new WPA-style posters celebrate the US energy revolution
-If you thought solar was going to hurt utilities, get a load of solar+storage
-Who Owns the Sun? Warren Buffett controls Nevada's legacy utility. Elon Musk is behind the solar company that's upending the market. Let the fun begin.
-From liquid air to supercapacitors, energy storage is finally poised for a breakthrough
-US agency reaches 'holy grail' of battery storage sought by Elon Musk and Gates
posted by kliuless (26 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
That misses the point completely.

Putting a man on the moon is complicated.

Solving climate change is complex.

There's a fundamental difference between the two.

You can solve the first kind of problem by making a plan up front and throwing resources at it. You cannot solve the second kind of problem that way.
posted by happyinmotion at 1:39 AM on March 7, 2016 [26 favorites]


Developing a working digital computing system was complex. The US government put essentially bottomless resources toward it during the early to mid 20th century, due to its potential military applications.

If only global warming could be framed in terms of (the lie that is) "national security", we'd have hundreds of billions of dollars per year available for actually doing something about it.
posted by anarch at 2:00 AM on March 7, 2016 [15 favorites]


If only global warming could be framed in terms of (the lie that is) "national security", we'd have hundreds of billions of dollars per year available for actually doing something about it.

I agree! Bernie Sanders said climate change was our greatest national security challenge in one of the earlier Democratic debates, but he was roundly criticized for it, even though the Pentagon and the CIA agree.
posted by dialetheia at 2:17 AM on March 7, 2016 [24 favorites]


You cannot solve the second kind of problem that way.

You can help, though.
Battery storage and solar PV have made huge differences already, and while that does create some other issues, prices are coming down rapidly.
posted by Mezentian at 2:18 AM on March 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


1) innovation is grossly overrated for climate change. We have ask the tools necessary to successfully mitigate at minimal costs right now. What we really need to change its the culture, the systems, the markets and the policies /subsidies. A far greater challenge. I feel like some of your links reflect this, some are still technoutopian in outlook.

2) I read that last guardian link earlier this week, truly terrible press release journalism containing literally no information.

That said look forward to reading your other links with great interest.
posted by smoke at 3:47 AM on March 7, 2016 [5 favorites]


Just legislate that all buildings/home/factories must be 20% more efficient. Other than the few dozen recent show buildings that's a known process (expensive but known) that would save more oil than a couple decades of solar tech.

Now get that through congress and the courts in less than a hundred years. (complex?)
posted by sammyo at 4:01 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Just legislate that all buildings/home/factories must be 20% more efficient. Other than the few dozen recent show buildings that's a known process (expensive but known) that would save more oil than a couple decades of solar tech.

Except that will result in lower prices of fuels which induces demand.
posted by srboisvert at 4:09 AM on March 7, 2016 [6 favorites]


happyinmotion: "Solving climate change is complex."

More importantly solving climate change is a world wide political problem; not an engineering problem. Even if the US could somehow curb their CO2 emissions to non-warming levels (which I don't think they can) they also have to convince the rest of the world to do the same.
posted by Mitheral at 4:35 AM on March 7, 2016 [5 favorites]


Climate change is not a technological issue. It is a global policy issue. Much harder to deal with, especially considering how dysfunctional we are at setting global policy. As a species we just don't seem to be able to gather together the collective will to deal with this problem head on, and no invention or innovation is going to be able to fix that fundamental failure. Technology and innovation have a part to play, but only in service to broader policy goals.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:36 AM on March 7, 2016 [9 favorites]


But it can become a political problem with a technological solution. Once non-bio energy is vastly cheaper there will be a natural transition. And it is happening. Not as fast as we'd like, infrastructure change is hard, but I see quite large solar arrays around.
posted by sammyo at 5:00 AM on March 7, 2016 [4 favorites]


So, we'll solve climate change for twelve people, decide that doing it is boring, and then not do it again for at least 44 years?
posted by Hatashran at 5:31 AM on March 7, 2016 [8 favorites]


"When any great moral challenge is ultimately resolved into a binary choice between what is right and what is wrong, the outcome is foreordained because of who we are as human beings,"

This did not have the optimism-inducing effect I think Gore was aiming for
posted by Greg Nog at 5:40 AM on March 7, 2016 [20 favorites]


you know who else thought big technological moonshot projects were going to save his malignant, self-deluding, suicidal society?
posted by ennui.bz at 5:42 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Shell energy scenarios to 2050. (The blueprint or scramble? report)
posted by bukvich at 5:47 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


While we can solve complex technological problems, it requires political will. In the case of the space program, that was triggered primarily by fear of the Russians. The space race started in 1957 when Sputnik was launched, Apollo was just a continuation.

I suspect it will take some outside triggering event before Americans take climate change seriously, possibly the loss of or serious damage to a city, Miami being one of the likely candidates. Unfortunately, by the time this happens, much of the climate damage will be irreversible. A 16-wheeler on a downward slope can't be stopped on a dime.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:55 AM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm glad to see people discussing this as a political problem but it's worth remembering that it's not really a global challenge so much as one political party in one country: the United States is both one of the largest polluters and the one where it's been politically dangerous to even acknowledge the problem. The big news from Obama's last attempt was that we were finally joining most of the world in trying to do something (of course, the Republicans are trying to obstruct this).

This is also why although green tech is important it's not the roadblock: simply adding a tax on fossil fuels which increases annually would have an enormous impact but again the hard part would be getting it past people who are paid quite well by the current system. Even if one of the alternative power systems reached commercial viability, I'd be surprised if there wasn't a strong effort to balance it out by subsidizing fossil fuels even more – to protect jobs, I'm sure.
posted by adamsc at 5:59 AM on March 7, 2016 [4 favorites]


An academic who studies climate change, fuel policy, etc., told me that the mass suicide of, oooooh, about six billion people would solve the problem. Which was his way of saying that the problem underlying all the other problems is that the planet can't support seven billion people in ANY context. A billion people could have dug up and burned all the oil they wanted indefinitely, with impunity (more or less).

Anyhoo, the real motherfucker, acc. to this chap, is going to be access to clean water--for drinking, agriculture, etc.
posted by Zerowensboring at 6:12 AM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


While we can solve complex technological problems, it requires political will.

This sounds better with a thick German accent.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:17 AM on March 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


You can solve the first kind of problem by making a plan up front and throwing resources at it. You cannot solve the second kind of problem that way.
I disagree that it's a complex problem. "Climate change" is a complex problem, as is "space exploration".

Complicated problems are specific targets. We need to 1) send a capsule into space and bring it back, 2) send men into space and bring them back, 3) send men around the moon and bring them back, 4) send men to land on the moon and bring them back, 5) send men to continuously land on the moon.

To reduce climate change, we need to 1) create energy technologies that do not produce carbon, 2) create energy products that work in the laboratory, 3) create energy products that are safe and reliable in the hands of consumers, 4) create energy products that reach scale with subsidies, 5) create energy products that reach scale without subsidies.

The way "climate change" is spoken about is like space exploration. Within "space" is everything from antenna manufacture to rocket engine production. From space suit fabric to satellite programming.

Climate change involves everything from solar technology, to materials science for lightweight vehicles, to insurance innovation pricing risk of costal lands, to low friction coatings on ships. A multitude of difference sectors -- a common purpose. Reduce carbon emitted into the atmosphere.

Complex problems are too big to be grappled with -- and useful to set the stage. For example "human rights". That doesn't mean we can break them into complicated problems -- human trafficking, freedom of the press, access to water, etc.

Wherever you see a complex problem, there are many many more complicated problems just below the surface.
posted by nickrussell at 6:21 AM on March 7, 2016 [11 favorites]


This sounds better with a thick German accent.

Would you prefer, "Rise up and throw off your carbon-addicted oppressors."? ;-)
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:28 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Kind of apt that this appeared just a few posts away from one on wicked problems. This here is a wicked problem.

I'm pleased that these stratospherically rich people can invest en bloc in what is hoped to be good technology, but in a way they are also creating the Green Cartel that is so often the target on anti climate change rhetoric. But the social issue is the hard part.
posted by scruss at 6:36 AM on March 7, 2016


sure, this is a wicked problem, but the problem, for the United States at least, is that it is invested in the soft power of the petro dollar to maintain a certain kind of hegemony. This means it props up the interests of multinational oil corporations --the last ones standing in the way of the world adapting to climate change.

These companies are solvent only because the financial industry is in a bit of climate denial. The US EIA, along with Shell, Chevron, etc are all putting out these global / US energy consumption projections that assume we will keep burning fossil fuels--even as those consumption rates assume the world will not act on climate, and assume world governments won't react to major coastal flooding and loss of cropland. But if the companies were to acknowledge their financial risk, that their value is based on 'stranded assets', that value will go upside down. the political decision is clearly between keeping these companies solvent and keeping a stable global climate.

And if you think the United States won't choose the solvency of a supermajor over its own people, just look at Louisiana's coastal zone. Shell and other supermajors hold tens of billions of dollars in liabilities to the Coastal Zone Management Act since around 1979. These companies have been able to delay the enforcement of that law until today, 2016. It has been cheaper for these companies to buy a political process than to fix the coastal wetlands according to Louisiana law and United States law.

Similarly, look at the way DOJ handled the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Despite the finding of willful neglect, and the purposeful disregard for safety, the federal judge ultimately limited the fine for BP to a lower standard of law. the fine was high enough to be the 'largest fine ever,' but low enough that BP America still exists as a corporation.

Now, Louisiana is a small state. The US has been able to ignore, mitigate, and marginalize the problems caused by these companies--only a few thousand people have drowned, and only about 100,000 people have been internally displaced. I would have thought that New York and New Jersey getting hit would have led to stronger action, but the US is still broadly allied to these companies over its internal interest.

So I agree that climate change is a wicked problem, but it's largely a political problem.
posted by eustatic at 7:30 AM on March 7, 2016 [9 favorites]


That misses the point completely. Putting a man on the moon is complicated. Solving climate change is complex.

maybe it's complexicated!

If only global warming could be framed in terms of (the lie that is) "national security", we'd have hundreds of billions of dollars per year available for actually doing something about it.

al gore: 07:57 "The US Defense Department has long warned of consequences from the climate crisis, including refugees, food and water shortages and pandemic disease."

More importantly solving climate change is a world wide political problem; not an engineering problem.

Climate change is not a technological issue. It is a global policy issue.


al gore is aware of the political problem :P

19:56 "We now have a moral challenge that is in the tradition of others that we have faced. One of the greatest poets of the last century in the US, Wallace Stevens, wrote a line that has stayed with me: 'After the final 'no,' there comes a 'yes,' and on that 'yes', the future world depends.' When the abolitionists started their movement, they met with no after no after no. And then came a yes. The Women's Suffrage and Women's Rights Movement met endless no's, until finally, there was a yes. The Civil Rights Movement, the movement against apartheid, and more recently, the movement for gay and lesbian rights here in the United States and elsewhere. After the final 'no' comes a 'yes.' "

I'm glad to see people discussing this as a political problem but it's worth remembering that it's not really a global challenge so much as one political party in one country: the United States is both one of the largest polluters and the one where it's been politically dangerous to even acknowledge the problem.

11:22 "I want to take a moment to honor these House Republicans -- who had the courage last fall to step out and take a political risk, by telling the truth about the climate crisis."

This is also why although green tech is important it's not the roadblock: simply adding a tax on fossil fuels which increases annually would have an enormous impact but again the hard part would be getting it past people who are paid quite well by the current system.

17:54 "Last question, 'Will we change?' Paris really was a breakthrough, some of the provisions are binding and the regular reviews will matter a lot. But nations aren't waiting, they're going ahead. China has already announced that starting next year, they're adopting a nationwide cap and trade system. They will likely link up with the European Union. The United States has already been changing. All of these coal plants were proposed in the next 10 years and canceled. All of these existing coal plants were retired. All of these coal plants have had their retirement announced. All of them -- canceled. We are moving forward. Last year -- if you look at all of the investment in new electricity generation in the United States, almost three-quarters was from renewable energy, mostly wind and solar."

-What Will It Take for Washington State to Put a Price on Carbon? A Controversial Carbon Tax Is Going on the November Ballot—But Critics Say Hard Conversations About Race and Social Justice Need to Happen First

-Washington considers nation's first carbon tax. Let these chickens give you the scoop

-EU and Chinese carbon markets will 'join forces'. What would a link-up between China and the EU's carbon markets mean for emissions trading?

-China set to surpass its climate targets as renewables soar. China's coal use falls as country plans layoff of 1.8 million coal and steel workers [1,2,3]

An academic who studies climate change, fuel policy, etc., told me that the mass suicide of, oooooh, about six billion people would solve the problem.

re: carrying capacity debates, check out ramez naam's _infinite resource_*

But it can become a political problem with a technological solution. Once non-bio energy is vastly cheaper there will be a natural transition. And it is happening.

14:35 "Now, the business community has certainly noticed this, because it's crossing the grid parity point. Cheaper solar penetration rates are beginning to rise. Grid parity is understood as that line, that threshold, below which renewable electricity is cheaper than electricity from burning fossil fuels. That threshold is a little bit like the difference between 32 degrees Fahrenheit and 33 degrees Fahrenheit, or zero and one Celsius. It's a difference of more than one degree, it's the difference between ice and water. And it's the difference between markets that are frozen up, and liquid flows of capital into new opportunities for investment. This is the biggest new business opportunity in the history of the world, and two-thirds of it is in the private sector. We are seeing an explosion of new investment. Starting in 2010, investments globally in renewable electricity generation surpassed fossils. The gap has been growing ever since. The projections for the future are even more dramatic, even though fossil energy is now still subsidized at a rate 40 times larger than renewables."

Datawatch: renewable energies - "Renewable energy sources -- particularly wind, hydro and solar -- are expected to account for the biggest change in global electricity generation between 2013 and 2020, larger than that from all other sources combined, according to IEA data."

The US EIA, along with Shell, Chevron, etc are all putting out these global / US energy consumption projections that assume we will keep burning fossil fuels--even as those consumption rates assume the world will not act on climate, and assume world governments won't react to major coastal flooding and loss of cropland. But if the companies were to acknowledge their financial risk, that their value is based on 'stranded assets', that value will go upside down.

11:37 "So the cost of the climate crisis is mounting up, there are many of these aspects I haven't even mentioned. It's an enormous burden. I'll mention just one more, because the World Economic Forum last month in Davos, after their annual survey of 750 economists, said the climate crisis is now the number one risk to the global economy. So you get central bankers like Mark Carney, the head of the UK Central Bank, saying the vast majority of the carbon reserves are unburnable. Subprime carbon. I'm not going to remind you what happened with subprime mortgages, but it's the same thing. If you look at all of the carbon fuels that were burned since the beginning of the industrial revolution, this is the quantity burned in the last 16 years. Here are all the ones that are proven and left on the books, 28 trillion dollars. The International Energy Agency says only this amount can be burned. So the rest, 22 trillion dollars -- unburnable. Risk to the global economy. That's why divestment movement makes practical sense and is not just a moral imperative."
posted by kliuless at 9:26 AM on March 7, 2016 [4 favorites]


There's a fundamental difference between the two.

The other real difference between the climate down here and the moon up there is that if the U.S. space program had been a complete failure, and we still hadn’t gotten to the moon by now, a) conditions on the lunar surface wouldn’t have changed much, and b) NASA wouldn’t have displaced millions of people around the world (32 million in 2011, another 22 million in 2013) by changing the weather. Here on Earth (or Eaarth, as Bill McKibben would have it), the longer we avoid this much greater problem, it gets worse and worse to deal with.
posted by LeLiLo at 10:46 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Many other differences too.

Less than 1% of 1% of the world worked on the space program, directly or indirectly - but if we are to really beat climate change we're going to have to change the lives of most humans on Earth, and that means every single person who is reading this, because each of us probably have a carbon footprint several times the median...

Comparing the Apollo mission to fixing climate change is a massive scale error - particularly since the Apollo missions, which I love greatly, were one-offs - they didn't directly lead to anything permanent.

Even if we had scheduled, 2001-style, TWA flights to the moon today, this change in society would still not be nearly the magnitude of "fixing the climate of the planet." And as you know, we're nowhere near even that limited level, 50 years later.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:52 PM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm sure if someone comes up with a carbon-sequestering method of delivering nuclear warheads, we can expect a similar effort to the Apollo program.
posted by pompomtom at 2:44 PM on March 7, 2016


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