Bill Gates has gotten a lot of criticism for endorsing–or at least for not opposing–poor countries’ use of cheap, plentiful, reliable energy from fossil fuels to improve their lives.
Here’s the background: In a post on his “Gates Notes” blog entitled “Two Videos That Illuminate Energy Poverty,” Gates recommends that readers view two videos by the Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg entitled “Fighting Poverty with Fossil Fuels” and “Saving Lives with Fossil Fuels” (they’re worth watching, and each is barely over a minute). Poor countries, says Gates,
desperately need cheap sources of energy now to fuel the economic growth that lifts families out of poverty. They can’t afford today’s expensive clean energy solutions, and we can’t expect them wait for the technology to get cheaper.
Thus, even though Gates believes that human beings’ impact on climate is a major negative, he believes that the positive of using more fossil fuels, in the case of poor countries, is worth it. He opposes “putting constraints on poor countries that will hold back their ability to fight poverty” and calls for technological improvements as the solution: “we should be investing dramatically more money in R&D to make fossil fuels cleaner and make clean energy cheaper than any fossil fuel.”
Does this approach of weighing benefit and risk sound reasonable, even if you disagree with his weights (which I do)? Not in today’s climate discussion, where serious weighing of the benefits and risks of using fossil fuels vs. not using fossil fuels rare. Instead, it is all too common to treat fossil fuels’ climate impact as an apocalyptic risk and treating the economic benefits of fossil fuels vs. solar and wind as nonexistent. And to attack anyone who says otherwise as an irresponsible ignoramus.
Take the prominent LinkedIn blog post “Sorry Bill Gates, But You’re Wrong on This Issue,” by Jigar Shah, a businessman in the solar industry.
Instead of giving a careful explanation to Bill Gates of why he is weighing the benefits and risks of fossil fuels incorrectly, Shah uses the all-too-common approach of intimidation-by-appeal-to-experts. In this case, Shah appeals to his own expertise and the fact that Gates is not in the energy industry.
Bill Gates, writes Shah, has “zero qualifications to understand energy and its costs.”
Bill Gates and anyone else, including you, is perfectly capable of reading the works of various experts in the field, getting a sense of the quality of their arguments and evidence, and forming a big-picture impression of which forms of energy work best and why. We need to consult experts, absolutely, but we need them to explain what they know and what we don’t know, so we know which views of which experts to act on. And that means we should be extremely suspicious of “experts” such as Jigar Shah, who use intimidation in place of explanation.
Jigar Shah, in his entire post, “Sorry Bill Gates, But You’re Wrong on This Issue,” never refutes Gates’s core argument: that solar and wind are unaffordable and impractical for the poor, while fossil fuels can be affordable and practical. Instead he just asserts it in passing while attacking Bjorn Lomborg: “Lomborg has a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the fact that renewable energy is cost competitive with fossil fuels as an energy source.” Apparently, Shah regards himself, and expects us to regard him, as authoritatively knowledgeable on these subjects. He repeatedly exmphasizes why Gates is unqualified to hold energy opinions: Gates “doesn’t know much about energy outside of his vested interests in nuclear power,” and possesses a “depth of ignorance that poses a serious problem given Gates’ stature.”
Even if Shah were a renowned energy scholar rather than a competitor in the energy industry arguing for his own technology, and even if Shah were right and Gates were wrong, this combination of insult and intimidation would still be exactly the wrong way to go about educating people. Shah should use whatever expertise he has to carefully explain how Gates (and perhaps the reader) got it wrong and how to properly think about the issue. To elaborate, as I put it in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, we need to treat
experts not as authority figures to be obeyed but as advisers to one’s own independent thought process and decision making. An adviser is someone who knows more than you do about the specifics but knows only part of what you need and can be wrong. An honest and responsible expert recognizes this, and so he takes care to explain his views and his reasons for them clearly, he is upfront about any reasons there may be for doubting his conclusions, and he responds patiently to questions and criticism.
Shah and too many experts-turned-intimidators do the exact opposite. And one reason is that their views don’t hold up in the face of questions and criticism.
If you survey the works of different scholars in energy, and the evidence they cite, you will see massive amounts of evidence for three conclusions: 1) Fossil fuels are by far the world’s leading fastest growing source of energy. 2) Solar and wind have proven fundamentally unreliable sources of energy that depend on cheap, plentiful, reliable energy from fossil fuels. 3) Life has gotten much better in poor countries with massively increased fossil fuel use.
1) Fossil fuels are by far the world’s leading and fastest-growing source of energy.
If we want to know which technologies are practical and which aren’t, a good place to start is to ask: what are the real trends? It’s easy for proponents of, say, solar panels to argue that they have a bright future, just as Amory Lovins, the most renowned energy scholar of the 1970s, did in 1976 when he said: “Recent research suggests that a largely or wholly solar economy can be constructed in the United States with straightforward soft technologies that are now demonstrated and now economic or nearly economic.”
Here is the actual trend of energy use in the last 30+ years. (This and the other graphs are taken from The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, based on the publicly available data sets cited below.)
Source: BP, Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, Historical data workbook
Isn’t it suspicious that around the world, countries keep using more and more fossil fuels? If solar and wind are “cost competitive,” why are they such a tiny blip?
If you suspect that maybe solar and wind are going through a renaissance in a few progressive places, like Germany, poised to take over the world, that brings us to:
2) Solar and wind have proven fundamentally unreliable sources of energy that depend on cheap, plentiful, reliable energy from fossil fuels.
Let’s go right to Germany. Here is a graph of the production of solar and wind electricity production in Germany for the entire year 2013.
Source: European Energy Exchange AG Transparency Platform Data (2013)
We’re all familiar with the fact that the sun doesn’t shine all the time and the wind doesn’t blow all the time. And when we are told that we should substitute on-demand sources like coal and gas with intermittent sources like the sun and the wind, we should question any “experts” who tell us this will be no problem. And this graph, using the most precise data available from the European Energy Exchange, shows us what we would suspect with common sense; no country is relying on solar and wind.
In a given week in Germany, the world leader in solar and number three in wind, their solar panels and windmills may generate less than 5 percent of needed electricity. Thus, Germany can’t and doesn’t rely on solar and wind. As Germany has paid tens of billions of dollars to subsidize solar panels and windmills, fossil fuel capacity, especially coal, has not been shut down—it has increased.
In Jigar Shah’s entire post attempting to school Bill Gates, who is well aware of the unreliability problem, Shah does not address this fundamental issue. Instead, he tries to equate solar with cell phones (which, unlike solar, are cheap and reliable) and points to some examples where aid programs to give solar power to poor countries gave them some amount of power.
But this is a dodge. No one denies that people can get some power solar panels, the issue is whether it can be affordable, abundant, and reliable on a level necessary for true human flourishing. We know that this is possible with fossil fuels and an electric grid, coupled with the right political and economic policies.
That’s not always easy in a world full of corrupt and dysfunctional governments, but the results are incredible when it happens.
Which leads us to:
3) Life has gotten much better in poor countries with massively increased fossil fuel use.
Here are two trends, in China and India, of fossil fuel usage, life expectancy, and income. When you see these trends, take seriously that these apply to billions of individuals.
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators (WDI) Online Data, April 2014
Not only in China and India, but around the world, hundreds of millions of individuals in industrializing countries have gotten their first lightbulb, their first refrigerator, their first decent paying job, their first year with clean drinking water or a full stomach. To take one particularly wonderful statistic, global malnutrition and undernourishment have plummeted—by 39 percent and 40 percent, respectively since 1990. That means, in a world with a growing population, billions of people are better fed than they would have been just a few decades ago. While there is plenty to criticize in how certain governments have handled industrialization, the big-picture effect has been amazingly positive so far.
This is the kind of evidence Bill Gates was pointed to. This is the kind of evidence he has been attacked as having “zero qualification” to bring to the world’s attention.
The reason I felt compelled to write this post is not because I disagree with Jigar Shah’s views on energy (I do, of course)–it is because I am appalled by his methodof substituting intimidation for explanation. Those of us who have expertise in energy or any other field have a sacred obligation to encourage robust, big-picture discussion of important issues by everyone. We should welcome informed, thoughtful opinions and disagreements from others, let alone from a brilliant mind like Bill Gates’s.
I disagree with many of Gates’s current conclusions about fossil fuels, particularly in how he thinks about climate danger. I think if we look at all the evidence, including the evidence that energy and technology brought climate danger to a record low, there is a strong moral case that fossil fuel use around the world should dramatically increase. But however much I disagree with the things Gates says, I agree with him 100% that the world need a big-picture discussion about fossil fuels, both their benefits and risks. And by discussing the issue of fossil fuels in an evenhanded way, Bill Gates is contributing to a better debate that will lead to a better future.