Time, books, and nice words from Mr. Gates

I was pleasantly surprised to read  Bill Gates calling me ‘my amazing teacher’ on his GatesNotes blog and calling me ‘brilliant’ in a tweet:


It is very nice to be called ‘my amazing teacher’ or ‘my brilliant teacher’ by anyone. It is especially nice to have those words said about you by Bill Gates.

The curious thing is that I don’t feel like I have taught Bill Gates much of anything. For the last decade or so, a few other people and I have been running a series of learning sessions for Bill, bringing in experts on different topics related to climate and energy. All I have done is help expose Bill Gates to some information. He is a self-learner, and generous enough to attribute his self-learning to the people around him.

The thing that I have learned the most from interacting with Bill is to value my time and use it thoughtfully.

I have never seen Bill Gates try to multi-task. I have never seen him check his text messages or email in the middle of a meeting. He does one thing at a time and gives that one thing his full attention.

Bill is limited by resources in many of the big things he wants to accomplish: eradicate diseases, bring prosperity to the poor, solve the climate / energy problem, etc. However, in terms of personal consumption, Bill is not limited by money. He is limited by the amount of time he is willing to allocate to an activity. For Bill, time his is his most precious resource. And he thinks very carefully about how to allocate his limited time.

If time is Bill Gates’s most precious resource,  maybe it is my most precious resource as well.

One of the things that is great about Bill is that he takes time to read. He usually reads at least one non-fiction book each week. Here is the richest man in the world, who can allocate his finite time to any activity he wants, and the best thing he can think to do with his time is sit in a chair and read.

When people think about the lifestyles of the rich and famous, maybe they think of wild beach parties in Bali. However, sitting in a chair and reading a good book is also part of the lifestyle of the more intelligent of the rich and famous. And I can partake of the lifestyle of the rich and famous simply by buying a book and sitting in an easy chair and reading.

Why don’t I read more? Is it because of the cost of books? No. The amount of time I spend reading is limited primarily by my willingness to allocate time to that activity.

My mom lives in a retirement community. She brings a kindle with her when she has to stand on line in the cafeteria so she can read while she waits to reach the steam tables. She asked another person on line why he was just waiting without doing anything else. The man replied, “What does it matter? I’m retired. I have all the time in the world.”

My mom responded, “What do you mean? You’re in your 80’s. You don’t have much time at all.”

My interactions with Bill have taught me that money can relieve constraints, but even with those constraints relieved, we need to ask ourselves the question: “How do I want to allocate my time? What do I want to spend my time doing?”

Yes, we are more constrained than Bill Gates, but we all have time that we can allocate more wisely. Money opens up possibilities, but we can all be choosing better among the possibilities that are already open to us.

I remember, as a kid, spending whole summers playing Monopoly with my friends, and these summers seemed to last forever. Perhaps the last time that time seemed infinite was playing bridge with my friends in college. Time then wasn’t zero sum. There would be time enough for everything. I look back fondly on that feeling of time abundant.

As one progresses through life, it becomes clear that time is very finite. Time is in short supply and there will not be time enough for everything.

Time is our most precious resource, and we must learn to use our time wisely.

This is what I have learned from Bill Gates.


Coffee and Climate: A Common Problem


There is a shared departmental coffee pot for my office – and my office is filled with people claiming that they are willing to sacrifice a little bit of their short-term self-interest to help solve the climate problem.

The person taking the last cup of coffee is supposed to make a new pot for the next coffee drinker. This involves throwing out the old grinds and filter, putting in a new filter and some ground coffee, and filling the water reservoir. It takes a little bit of work – a couple of minutes at most.

What happens as the coffee gets low is that people start taking smaller and smaller cups of coffee, leaving enough in the pot to represent a plausible cup of coffee. Of course, this little bit of coffee evaporates down to some burnt-tasting brew and sometimes ends up as a pasty semi-solid on the bottom of the pot. Even though we are an office full of people claiming to be willing to sacrifice a little bit for the greater good, we can’t get people to cooperate enough to maintain a steady flow of drinkable coffee. (And don’t get me started on the tea kettle situation!)

The problem is that, as perhaps too simply described by Carl Sagan in The Dragons of Eden, deep beneath our modern and rational neo-cortex lies an emotional structure derived from an ancient reptilian brain. We might know cognitively that we should make that next pot of coffee for the greater good of the community but our reptilian brains are narrowly focused on the short-term benefits. This is related to Malcom Gladwell’s Blink or Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. We make snap, almost automatic, decisions that do not accord with what our slower, more thoughtful, selves would decide.

We evolved as hunter gatherers, where rapid response could mean the difference between life and death, where thinking about long time scales meant thinking about saving enough food to last through the winter, where thinking about big spatial scales meant worrying about attacks from the village in the next valley. Now, we have created a technological world to which we are no longer adapted. Problems like climate change mean we must think about problems extending out over decades to millennia and even millions of years, and that we must think on spatial scales that encompass the whole globe. Our ancient lizard brains can’t do this. We need to solve modern problems with our neo-cortex.

To oversimplify once again, we might imagine that Hillary Clinton asked us to vote with our neo-cortex. She asked us to think about what policies government could institute to help solve some of our problems. Donald Trump asked us to vote with our lizard brains. He asked us to vote our emotions. He asked us to ignore that what he was saying didn’t make cognitive sense, but to follow our emotions and him into the voting booth.

Imagine how our coffee situation might change if there was a public list where each person wrote their name when they took a cup of coffee, and maybe put a star next to it when they made a pot of coffee. Then you would know who left this last bit of black goo (and think a bit less of them) or who made that gleaming new potful (and think a bit better of them). The solution lies in aligning self-interest a little more closely with the community interest.

How do we solve the climate problem? Is it by getting everybody to agree to sacrifice in the here-and-now to help people far away and in the distant future? Do we expect people to deny themselves something in the sensory field of their lizard brains to help people that exist only in the abstract thinking of their neo-cortex? Seems unlikely to me.

We will not solve the climate problem by teaching people to be less selfish. If we have to wait until people learn to make self-sacrificing snap judgments before we can solve the climate problem, we will be waiting until it is too late.

The challenge then is to create incentives that more closely align narrow short-term self-interest with the broader long-term collective interest. What can do this is policy. A carbon tax. Standards regulating greenhouse gas emissions per mile driven or kilowatt-hour used.

Even if we act in the here and now with our emotional lizard brains, we can hope that we produce a government of people with fully functioning neo-cortexes that make decisions based on rational considerations. In this context, the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency is particularly disturbing. We are emotional beings so we need a government that acts rationally. We need a government that will help us to align self-interest with community-interests. Instead, I fear we are getting a government that steers narrow self-interest down avenues that advance only narrow self-interest.

We need to move beyond the emotional lizard brain to solve the coffee and climate problems. We need rational, thoughtful policies that will better align individual interests with community interests. It is difficult to get such policies enacted at the level of my department, even harder to get such policies enacted at the level of a country, and even harder at the level of the entire world.

We have little choice but to try.

This is a slightly shorter version of an essay I wrote in an effort to think about what I might say in an opening statement for a panel I will be on at the Fall 2016 American Geophysical Union in a session titled Planetary Intelligence: Managing Earth’s Future. It was easier for me to cut paragraphs in a new version than to cut the previous version.swatch-white_8

Solving the coffee and climate problems

I was asked to make an opening statement for a panel I will be on at the Fall 2016 American Geophysical Union in a session titled Planetary Intelligence: Managing Earth’s Future. An edited version is here.  This is just the stuff I cut but couldn’t bring myself to throw away at the time.



In Britain, people queue for the bus, whereas in most other place, people crowd around as the bus arrives, rewarding the most aggressive among us. Clearly, it is better for the society as a whole to queue, so why doesn’t everyone queue? Why isn’t everyone willing to sacrifice a bit of their short-term self-interest for the greater good of the broader community? Are the Brits really more community spirited than the rest of us? I think not. If someone tried to jump the queue in the Great Britain, I believe that people would do something that would make that person feel bad. This could be a bit of tut-tut-ing or perhaps something more forceful. But I imagine the queue jumper would feel a bit embarrassed by the end of the exchange.

(Another path would be to buy a fancy new super-automatic plumbed-in coffee machine. Should the resources for that coffee machine come from the budget for scientific equipment, postdoc salaries, or where? Who and how will we make that decision?)

(Another path would be to institute a carbon dioxide removal program at massive scale. But where would the vast amount of resources needed for that carbon dioxide removal program come from? What valuable thing that we have today would we be willing to give up? And who and how would we make that decision?)


Comment on the Dakota Access Pipeline

A student asked me to comment on the Dakota Access Pipeline, based on my area of expertise. This (in a slightly edited form) is what I wrote:

It is not possible to detect the climate change caused by any particular piece of our energy infrastructure, yet in aggregate the greenhouse gas emissions from energy infrastructure is having a tremendous impact on our climate system.

The question, therefore, is not about the amount of climate change caused by this individual facility, but what environmental and human damage will result as a consequence of building more such infrastructure.

From a global environmental perspective, the Dakota Access Pipeline is another step down a path we shouldn’t be going down. No one step down this path brings calamity, but each step increases risk and increases damage, and collectively many such steps could prove catastrophic.

If we know we need to be transitioning to the near-zero emission clean energy system of the 21st century, why are we continuing to expand last century’s archaic polluting energy system?

Clearly, there is money to be made by building this pipeline, but the public interest lies in building the energy system of the future, not in enlarging the energy system of the past.


Seeking money, asking to help

I sent this little note of unsolicited advice to my postdocs writing proposals and seeking other forms of support…

Some years ago, I went to a DOE program manager asking them to help fund a project that I thought was really important. The program manager said to me:

“I don’t want to hear about how I can help you. I want to hear about how you can help me.”

This really lit a light bulb up in my head, that was only made brighter when for a while we were distributing FICER funds to third parties.

Every NSF program, every philanthropist, everyone else distributing funds has objectives that they are trying to achieve. They will give you money only if you can convince them that you can help them achieve their objectives cost-effectively.

There is a tendency to approach people for money in the position of supplicant when it is more appropriate to approach people for money in the position of service provider.

Thinking of yourself as providing a service will color how you write your proposals or how you design your pitch. swatch-white_8

What inspired you to get into the field of Geoengineering?

A student wrote me and asked, “I am doing a biography speech about you for my speech class, and I was wondering if you could answer just a couple of questions for me, if possible. What inspired you to get into the field of Geoengineering? Did something happen in your life that made you realize this is what was important to you?”  This is what I wrote her in response:

Most things in life happen as an unpredictable consequence of personal preparation and random opportunities.

I had studied and worked as a climate scientist for over a decade before I started to consider geoengineering.

In 1998, I co-organized a meeting on energy system transitions towards an energy system that did not use the sky as a waste dump. We, or more specifically, my mentor, Marty Hoffert, invited Lowell Wood to speak about geoengineering. He had been working on geoengineering concepts, working with Edward Teller at Lawrence Liverrmore National Laboratory.

Lowell claimed, without much evidence, that putting particles in the stratosphere could return Earth’s surface environment closer to what it was before the dawn of the industrial revolution. David Keith and I and a few others in the audience said something to the effect of “Even if you could return globally averaged temperatures back to what they were, there would still be large changes in regional and seasonal climate.”

At that time, I too worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, but it was a 7000-person workplace and I had never met Lowell Wood. However, next door to my office there was a guy named Govindasamy Bala and he ran atmospheric climate models. My initial goal was to show that solar geoengineering wouldn’t work and there would be large regional and seasonal mismatches. We had no money to do this, so I told Bala that if he ran the climate model simulations, he could be first author on the resulting paper.

We did the simulations and lo and behold the model predicted that the solar geoengineering would work quite well, and do a good job of offsetting regional and seasonal climate changes. This result was largely due to the strong influence of sea ice on the climate system. If you can restore sea ice back to what it was, then much of the rest of the climate system is also restored. Ours was the first three-dimensional climate model simulation of solar geoengineering.

So, this has been much of my history in this field: We try to poke holes in the idea, because emotionally I don’t like the idea of intentionally manipulating Earth’s climate system, but each time we do a computer model simulation, the results suggest that solar geoengineering could offset most climate change for most people most of the time.

Over the past decade, many more people have entered this area. As a scientist, I try to be the first to do something in a research area and then move on to something else. So, now I am spending perhaps 10% of my time on this research area.

For example, the 1998 paper that came out of that meeting in Aspen, was the first peer-reviewed paper ever to compute how much carbon-emission-free energy we would need to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels while providing enough energy to sustain economic growth. Of course, now, many people are doing such calculations.

I just got back from 2 months in the Great Barrier Reef, where we for the first time ever put a plume of CO2-enriched seawater across a natural unconfined patch of coral reef, and we measured how the CO2 caused the reef to grow more slowly. We will not repeat this work, but try to move on to the next creative idea.


A comment on the proposal to close Indian Point nuclear power plant

A journalist asked me to comment on the efforts by Governor Cuomo to close down the Indian Point nuclear power plant, outside of New York City. An edited form of my reply follows (image from http://www.elp.com):


I am a climate scientist with no particular expertise on things nuclear and little knowledge specific to individual power plants and little knowledge about the details of New York’s power supply system, so I am a loathe to comment on Indian Point and other matters with great specificity.

I do know that nuclear power has been one of the safest and most reliable, if not the safest and most reliable, forms of electricity generation operating over the last half-century — and this is taking the tragic accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima into account.

Coal kills something like 3000 people every day, largely due to health effects of particulate emissions. More people die from every week from coal-electricity production than have ever died as a result of nuclear power. The airplane crash gets the news; people dying on the highway every day is a bit ho-hum.

That said, if you were siting a nuclear power plant today, I don’t think you would site it near a giant population center. That is just sensible risk management. The risks are already small, but why not make them even smaller?

If Indian Point is closed down what will take its place? Will it be better or worse? What will be built additionally? Today, the cheapest electricity from new builds is typically natural gas. It is clear that natural gas is much worse for the environment than nuclear power.

I went to high school in Yorktown Heights, New York, less than 10 driving miles from Indian Point. Back then, I felt tangible disquietude, afraid that at some point the nuclear core might melt down and expose me to lethal radiation. Now, I understand intellectually that the likelihood of me dying in an automobile accident was many many thousands of times greater than ever dying as a result of a meltdown at Indian Point. But would I put many many thousands of times more effort into avoiding automobile accidents than I would put into trying to reduce risk from Indian Point? No. The desire to close Indian Point is mainly an emotional response to not-easily-quantified threats beyond our control, and not primarily based on a rational risk assessment.

A friend of mine did a study of a wide range of risks, and he decided that one of the main things we could do to reduce real risk in our lives is to wear motorcycle helmets while driving cars. His wife told him that if he did that, she wouldn’t ride in a car with him. So, he drives without wearing a motorcycle helmet.

It is a difficult question: How much should public policy cater to fears that are in large part irrational, but which nonetheless make people uncomfortable? A role of government is to help people feel better. To what extent is it appropriate for governments to undertake costly actions that cater to people’s largely irrational fears? (Isn’t that exactly what we did in Iraq?)

Tough questions. No simple answers.