Seattle's famed philanthropist wants a posse of billionaires to take on climate change. We need them. But how far will technological magic go?

Share story

Bill Gates likes challenges so perhaps he has finally found one big enough for his appetite: moving the planet beyond fossil fuels and reducing the effects of climate change.

In Paris for the COP21 world climate summit, the Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist unveiled a coalition of billionaires committed to investing in clean energy and other technologies, and drawing more investment to the cause. His interview in The Atlantic on the subject is worth reading.

If ever there was an all-hands-on-deck moment in history, this is it. The question now appears to be whether humanity can save itself from a self-inflicted catastrophe, even though temperatures are on track to rise enough to cause enormous costs and disruptions already.

It would be nice if innovation, technological magic and the market as it exists today could turn the hinge of fate in our favor.

But governments — at least some — will have to work harder to keep most of the remaining carbon in the ground. The cost will be small compared with that of climate change unaddressed. Fossil-fuel subsidies must go. Investment in infrastructure such as more transit and high-speed rail is essential. The latter could eliminate vast amounts of C02 for travel between city pairs by taking the place of polluting jets (saving them for longer hauls).

Then things get dicey. What if this isn’t enough? What if we also have to change our fundamental living arrangements? I suspect we will and habits and customs can be more formidable than the Koch brothers. These may not require radical steps, but they would include costing in such things as the “externalities” of car dependence and the 10,000-mile supply chain.

Author Naomi Klein argues that capitalism itself is the enemy and we must choose between it and planetary survival. “There is still time to avoid catastrophic warming,” she writes in her book This Changes Everything, “but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which is surely the best argument there has ever been for changing those rules.”

I don’t agree, although her argument must be contended with. Incentives need to change; costs need to be honest; America can show it is exceptional by being a leader. But technological magic alone, as much as we need it, will not save us.


Today’s Econ Haiku:

So who was asleep

As we lost historic flats

Awake at the bank?