How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.
Summary: An assessment of what it will take to get to “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, and the technological breakthroughs we will need to achieve that.
If you do not believe the scientific consensus about our changing climate and the implication of increasing global temperatures for all forms of life on planet earth, you probably want to take a pass on this post. Likewise if you have it out for Bill Gates. I’m not interested in arguments with you. I review books for those who want to know about new books so they may decide whether or not to purchase them and that’s who this review is for.
Bill Gates spent his early adult life building Microsoft as one of the leaders of the personal computer revolution, with the goal of a computer in every home, many of them powered by Microsoft software. He made a massive fortune and has spent the second half of his life giving much of it away, focusing particularly quality healthcare for the impoverished of the world and quality educational opportunities. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has led initiatives for vaccinations to eliminate childhood diseases, and poured money into COVID-19 vaccines, resulting in conspiratorial allegations, a classic example of the axiom that “no good deed goes unpunished.” His travels around the world have brought to his attention how global climate challenge threatens to undo the progress made by the health and education programs the foundation has funded. And in typical Gates fashion, he has researched the problem, read voraciously, and put his own money where his mouth is. His book recommendations at GatesNotes are second only to my own (just kidding!).
This new book makes a very simple contention. We need to go from 51 billion to zero. 51 billion is the amount of pounds of greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere. Zero is zero net emissions, which most climate scientists believe we need to get to by 2050 at the latest if we have any chances of averting the worst consequences of anthropogenic climate change. Gates outlines their case and the consequences, disproportionately hitting the world’s poorest who have contributed the least to the crisis. And probably in the biggest understatement of the whole book, Gates spends the next chapter telling us “this will be hard.” If we ignore it, things will be even worse. We could just say, we have what it takes and we just need to do it. Gates makes the case that this is only partially true at best. To get to zero, there are problems we need to solve for which we do not yet have the solutions. And we hardly have a consensus that we need to lean into this hard work and invest in solutions we don’t even have.
In the chapters that follow, he lays out the challenges. Electricity and the grid that delivers it is an amazing thing. But we get much of it from burning fossil fuels and we have to figure out how to eliminate those emissions, either by capturing the carbon or better, using forms that don’t require burning carbon-based fuels. He reviews all the alternatives, making the argument for solar, wind, and thermal, but also for a new generation of nuclear plants (in which he is investing). We need to figure out how to make things without carbon emissions. Plastic, steel, and concrete all require significant emissions as currently manufactured. We have to deal with how we grow our food. Huge increases in crop yields have fed the world, but require fertilizers that add to our emissions as do the cows that provide for our beef-heavy appetites, through their burps and farts (Gates’ words!). Then there is transportation. Trains, planes, and automobiles (and ships) are most efficiently powered by fossil fuels. Battery technology allows cars to travel up to a few hundred miles, but they are heavy, and the larger the vehicle, the more limited they are as a solution. Finally, there is heating and cooling. Even if there are solutions for all these problems (and for some they don’t yet exist), the Green Premium (the extra cost of the carbon-free alternative) is often prohibitive, especially in poorer countries, and needs to be reduced.
The final part of the book attempts to chart the course governments, companies, and individuals will need to take to overcome these challenges to get to net zero. First he addresses the fact that adaptation will be part of it. The world will get warmer. It will be particularly critical to address food production, especially in poorer countries. Then Gates argues for the importance of government policies that invest in research and in leveling the playing field so fossil fuel based solutions don’t enjoy an advantage that removes the incentive to develop alternatives, and more. One of the most critical pieces is to invest in research and development and match it to our greatest needs. Finally he focuses on what each of us can do as citizen advocates, as conserving consumers, and as Green employers.
I found myself reflecting as I read all this on whether we have any hope of making it to zero. One thing I appreciate about Gates is his blunt honesty. This is incredibly hard! Even at the height of pandemic lockdowns, carbon emissions only went down 17 percent, according to Gates. Actually the pandemic is a kind of dress rehearsal for what we need to do globally to address climate change. While there are bright spots like the rapidity in which the vaccines and new therapies were developed, or individual countries that managed to balance public health and economic pressures well with high citizen cooperation, the uncoordinated global response and contentiousness within countries have led to a muddled effort at best, far from optimum. Bill Gates does not address how to overcome the resistance to the hard work needed (when many resisted even wearing masks) and what will be needed to engender trust in the science instead of suspicion.
Perhaps the question is whether a critical number of world leaders, business leaders, science leaders, community leaders, and faith leaders will come together in resolute action over a thirty year period. Not all will follow–at least at first. Over time, new norms may just become norms. Bill Gates is hopeful that we will take the measures needed and that we will find and implement the solutions that are necessary. I’m not so sure. But I also agree with him that the alternative is far less desirable. The question is whether we will see it coming before it is here.