Bill Gates likes my book “The Rational Optimist.” Really, he does. Even though he dislikes my points about Africa and climate change, these take up, as he notes, just one chapter. The rest he summarizes fairly and intelligently, and I appreciate that. It’s great for an author when anybody reviews a book “well” in both senses of the word.
It is worth explaining why I chose Africa and climate change as the “two great pessimisms of today.” The answer is simple: Whenever I speak about optimism and someone in the audience protests, “But surely you cannot think that we can ever solve…” the subjects that most frequently cross their lips next are African poverty and global warming. Mr. Gates also mentions potential threats from super-intelligent computers and pandemics. Maybe he is right to worry about them, but I have yet to be persuaded that either is more than a small risk.
Mr. Gates dislikes my comments on climate change, which I think will be less damaging than official forecasts predict, while the policies designed to combat climate change will be more damaging than their supporters recognize. I argue that if we rush into low-carbon technologies too soon, because we think the problem is more urgent than it is, we risk doing real harm to ecosystems as well as human living standards—as the biofuel fiasco all too graphically illustrates. The rush to turn American corn into ethanol instead of food has contributed to spikes in world food prices and real hunger, while the rush to grow biodiesel for Europe has encouraged the destruction of orangutan habitat in Borneo.
I also argue, however, that it is highly unlikely, given the rate at which human technology changes, that we will fail to solve the problem of man-made climate change even if it does prove more severe than I expect. For example, the world is on a surprisingly steady trajectory toward decarbonization. The number of carbon atoms we burn per unit of energy we generate is falling as we gradually switch from carbon-rich fuels like wood and coal to hydrogen-rich fuels like oil and especially gas. At current rates, we would be burning almost no carbon by about 2070, though I suspect that point will never actually be reached.
The question that I pose in the book is whether optimism is likely to be right. In essence, neither Mr. Gates nor I think that the problem of man-made climate change is going to prove insoluble or fatal to civilization. We disagree only on how urgent it is to devote massive expenditures to dealing with it, which would put poverty reduction at risk. I think that direct spending to alleviate malaria, which now kills a million people a year and whose incidence is likely to increase as a result of global warming by less than 0.03% per year, is a far higher priority. So does Mr. Gates, judging by his foundation’s spending.
It is on Africa that Mr. Gates throws his sharpest barbs. Yet, once again, I think that we agree on the most important point, namely, that Africa can have a good future. “Development in Africa is difficult to achieve,” he writes, “but I am optimistic that it will accelerate.”
Worth reading also.