25 January 2010

Beware the Zero Sum Game

Bill Gates appears to be getting more active in the climate debate, and from what he is writing, this looks like a good thing. In his second annual letter from the Gates Foundation (PDF) he discusses the uncomfortable implications of fungible aid commitments:
Deficits are not the only reason that aid budgets might change. Governments will also be increasing the money they spend to help reduce global warming. The final communiqué of the Copenhagen Summit, held last December, talks about mobilizing $10 billion per year in the next three years and $100 billion per year by 2020 for developing countries, which is over three quarters of all foreign aid now given by the richest countries.

I am concerned that some of this money will come from reducing other categories of foreign aid, especially health. If just 1 percent of the $100 billion goal came from vaccine funding, then 700,000 more children could die from preventable diseases.
Should funding for developing countries under climate policies be taken from already-existing aid? If not, should funding under climate policies be subject to a test of additionality? Obviously, 700,000 dead kids per $1 billion is a big, big number. What is climate policy worth to you in such terms?


  1. That's one of the challenges. If the funds are for adaptation, do the countries have to prove that it is definitely a climate change impact? What if the cause is unclear? Does that make funding for people to recover from a drought or flood any less desirable?
    I think most folks would say that more funding should be given in total, so it is additive, but I don't see where many countries, in this economic climate, have such a surplus. As so many things, it is easy to talk about, but very complex to get into the real-world details.

  2. Gates also writes in the letter:

    "There are a lot of important topics I didn’t get around to in this letter. One area that I have been spending a lot of personal time on is energy and its effect on climate. The most important innovation required to avoid climate change will be a way of producing electricity that is cheaper than coal and that emits no greenhouse gases. There will be a huge market for this, and governments should supply large amounts of funding for basic R&D. Because the foundation invests in areas where there is not a big market, I have not yet seen a way that we can play a unique role here, but I am investing in several ideas outside the foundation. I am surprised that the climate debate hasn’t focused more on encouraging R&D since it is critical to getting to zero emissions. Still, I think it is likely that out of the many possible approaches, at least one scalable innovation will emerge in the next 20 years and be installed widely in the 20 years after that."

  3. My hypothesis for why the "climate debate hasn’t focused more on encouraging R&D" is because climate scientists would have to give up funding and the power to talk about it to engineers.;)

  4. Any R&D based strategy must be prepared for the possibility that no cost effective technical solution can be found. Look at how cheap fusion power is always 'just around the corner'. We will likely find that the low cost emission free technology meets the same fate.

    As for the cost of climate aid, I often ask alarmists what government programs they would sacrifice in order to pay this 'climate debt'. I insist that they pick something that constitutes a sacrifice (i.e. cutting military spending not a sacrifice for someone that opposes the military).

    It often takes time to get a straight answer but the result is invariably the same: given a choice between helping poor countries and their pet government programs people will *always* choose their pet government program. I am sure politicians know this.

  5. "Obviously, 700,000 dead kids per $1 billion is a big, big number. What is climate policy worth to you in such terms?"

    I those terms, climate policy carries way too high a price, and shouldn't even be considered.

  6. Politicians spend our money on high profile subjects. Because the media focuses on the high profile subjects. Because people like to read about high profile subjects.

    Which is why the tsunami in 2004 in the Indian Ocean - tragedy that it was - got so much attention and money. Malaria kills as many people every single month of every single year as the tsunami killed in total. But gets nothing like tsunami money.

    If climate change creates more news and has more attention it will get more attention and more money. It will take away money that goes into clean water supplies and eradication of malaria.

    Politicians don't know whether climate change is real or not, or whether the apocalyptic scenarios are real or not, or whether 80% reduction in carbon emissions is possible.

    They are just swept along, working out what focus groups of swing voters want to see.

    Bill Gates has money and doesn't need to be elected. If only there were more..

  7. The British are doing this right now. That is diverting funds from normal aid to climate aid.

    Check out http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jan/25/climate-aid-uk-funding

    Where they say

    A £1.5bn pledge by Gordon Brown to help poor countries cope with the ravages of climate change will drain funds from existing overseas aid programmes to improve health, education and water supplies, the government admitted today.

    The move, revealed in an email exchange between campaigners and an official at the Department for International Development (DfiD), appears to undermine repeated government pledges that such climate aid should be additional to existing overseas development aid (ODA).

  8. So, to paraphrase, the richest man in the world wants governments to do all the donkey work and costs of establishing the technology so that he and like-minded investors can then be fast followers and reap all the benefit.

    At this point you realize it's nothing to do with saving the planet or indeed any good intentions. Well do I remember Branson's group in London telling us we had a great idea but we couldn't be funded by them because we weren't asking for enough money for our long-life battery. Hypocrites! And as for governments - in France if it isn't related to keeping the massive nuclear bureaucracy in Grenoble going ad infinitum then it's a total non-starter. Been there, done that. Now they have all the hydrogen fuel cells thanks to massive investments they want but no means of making, storing or distributing the hydrogen. Oh yes we certainly need more of that thinking. Bottom line, if Gates isn't investing it's because he hasn't seen anything that'll do the trick.

  9. Bill Gates is a smart man; but is he really smarter than all the inventors and executives in the world who are interested in energy technologies and who are already putting money on the line for research? The payoff to an individual or a company for devising "a way of producing electricity that is cheaper than coal and that emits no greenhouse gases" would be huge. And, of course, every additional billion dollars invested in energy research costs the lives of 700,000 children if it takes away from foreign aid.

  10. For a lot of environmentalists, taking aid away from life saving uses in order to fund "climate change" is a win-win. I know that sounds really harsh, but one need only read some of the horrifying quotes from prominent leaders in the environmental movement regarding DDT and malaria to realize that it's true.

  11. Gates is very gently pointing out how insane AGW policies are.

  12. But I want to have my cake an eat it too.

    One of the biggest problems in finding a solution to the energy equation is regulatory risks.

    Since the government is the one that imposes regulatory risk..investors want them to 'buy into' the solution.

    In the Pacific Northwest we have endless battles between the Hydro power people and the fish people. Is saving a few fish worth throwing away 85% of the existing electric capacity in the Pacific Northwest?

    The question isn't as simple as finding 'new' sources of clean energy..we don't event have a consensus on keeping the existing sources...who is going to invest?

    Here is a recent editorial
    Register Guard Editorial - Saturday, Dec 26, 2009
    The Obama administration wants federal District Judge James Redden to believe that eight hydroelectric dams currently producing power on the Columbia and Snake rivers can coexist with 13 populations of salmon and steelhead that have become imperiled, largely because of those same dams.

  13. "The most important innovation required to avoid climate change will be a way of producing electricity that is cheaper than coal and that emits no greenhouse gases."

    Bingo. Give that man a (Nobel Peace) prize.

  14. Sigh, it appears that even Bill Gates believes that some type of "magic bullet" will appear if only we do more R&D. We have been pouring million$ and million$ into the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Roger Pielke's back yard for about 38 years, now, and I have seen no major breakthroughs. I think mankind has advanced sufficiently to put some brackets around what is physically possible, and it is futile to just hope for some "new technology." I think Bill needs to take Physics 101.

    Of course I'm NOT saying we shouldn't be doing R&D in PROMISING areas like fusion. But let's just face the simple fact that there is not sufficient "energy density" associated with wind, waves, solar to even hope that we can invent systems that compete favorably with conventional forms of energy.

    I don't mind if you color me a reactionary old fart, either.

  15. "The most important innovation required to avoid climate change will be a way of producing electricity that is cheaper than coal and that emits no greenhouse gases."

    This is the best candidate I have found.


    LFTR (liquid fluoride thorium reactor) the "green" nuclear

    no co2

    compared to current nuclear:
    < 50% of cost
    1000x less waste volume
    1000x less waste toxicity

    developed in the 60s. technology can be updated and a demo plant build for $10B over 10yrs. Cheap!

  16. Never say never jae. How about this for wind power - artificial tornadoes, woo hoo:
    Needs a bit of work - and funding from the likes of Gates.

    Charles, the French and the Indians are already into Thorium reactors. The Indians will be first with a working model. I rather feel those numbers are pulled straight out of the aether though.

  17. jae- I think Roger was the one who said "no magic bullets, but possibly a spray of non-magical shotgun pellets."

  18. Fusion is tough. But the US Navy believes enough in this approach to put up $8 million with a $4 million kicker. And it will not be part of a never ending quest.

    We Will Know In Two Years or less.

  19. jgdes,

    The problem with low delta T engines is that the Carnot efficiency is terrible. Which means the engines need to be really big and for the device described you have to pump a LOT of water. That pumping greatly reduces your net energy.

    Or you can use solar to heat the water. Nice. It has to be really big. Big costs money.

    In the case of a power plant cooler you are trading lower plant efficiency for reduced cooling power.

    The idea has been around for a long time. Why aren't they proliferating? Because the do not make economic sense.

  20. M Simon
    a. Good points but he has covered those and more in the FAQ.
    b. Why they aren't proliferating isn't necessarily about economics or efficiency but just plain old barriers to entry. Does it make economic sense to buy Microsoft products or use a qwerty keyboard? Most often the reason we do things is because of resistance to change and we invent many excuses to cover up that basic lethargy; the most prevalent being "if it's such a good idea then why isn't it more popular?"