Climate change is one of the most serious problems facing humanity at this point in time. What can we do now to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and how can we adapt to what we cannot prevent? Bill Gates presents his understanding of where we’re at with solutions, and identifies the gaps in our technological capacity to deal with the problems that face us, to tell us How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Firstly, he defines the goal. We need to get to “net zero” emissions of greenhouse gases by mid-century. If we don’t, we will be in uncharted territory, facing more, and more extreme, weather events, including storms, wild fires, droughts, and floods. Some places may well be better off, but the Earth as a whole will be less hospitable for humanity. The scale of this problem makes getting to net zero difficult. Everything we do produces greenhouse gases because a) fossil fuels are cheap, and b) they’re a really damn effective source of power. This is a point Gates acknowledges repeatedly: fossil fuels have dramatically improved our lives in many ways. But this has come at a cost. The rich world has been a big polluter, and, in an effort to catch up, poorer countries are polluting more too. Further to this, humans are change averse: “we have a large and understandable incentive to stick with what we know, even if what we know is killing us”. Gates explores, over twelve concise chapters, the scale of the problem, and the different solutions that we have. He makes the problem intelligible by separating out the different areas of human activity into five separate themes: our use of electricity, production and industry, agriculture, transport, and heating and cooling. He then considers how we might adapt to changes, explores policy solutions, and suggests individual actions. Gates does not try to convince you that climate change is real: if you still need to be convinced on that, buy another book.
The best thing about this book is its intelligibility. Gates lays out the problem clearly and in plain English, making it easily accessible to non-experts. It was useful for someone like myself, who has read a lot in the news, but who is generally ignorant on the finer points, to help me better my understanding. There are things that I knew that this book helped me frame in a more succinct way. I also learnt a lot: hydrodams can be big polluters because the soil in the carbon underwater will eventually turn to methane and be released into the atmosphere (methane being a more potent greenhouse gas). It also helped place plastics into context: when it comes to climate change, they are not the enemy. Plastic pollution, especially in the oceans, is a big problem, but plastics are less of a worry for heating the earth, and, if used properly, are still a legitimate use of fossil fuels — better than burning. Ironically, I actually came away from the book with a greater appreciation for fossil fuels, and their power. Even still, despite their benefits for mankind, Gates also makes the need for change abundantly clear. The argument he lays out in this regard comes through well. We need to start thinking beyond renewables, and develop nuclear energy, integrating it into our solutions. We also need to incorporate carbon capture, making it more affordable, and deploying it where burning fossil fuels remains necessary for the foreseeable future. He uses the measure of a “Green Premium” to make comparisons between technologies, and measure how far we have progressed, and how far we need to go (though the “Green Premium” gap is less of a premium, and more of a carbon subsidy, given that the price of fossil fuels does not account for the cost of cleaning up after them — a point that could have been emphasised more). Throughout, Gates demonstrates that he has a business-like mindset, and thinks in terms of problems and solutions, which in turn means that his writing will appeal to practically minded people. He makes it clear that he is not a politically-minded person, and this comes through: the policy solutions are open-minded and goal-oriented, rather than detail driven or partisan. Within this, he appeals to a broad range of people, from scientists to economists, to individual citizens and laypeople.
There’s some areas where he might have expanded. It was great to know what I could do as a citizen and as a consumer, but some more on what I might do as investor would be useful. What practical steps can I take to invest my savings or pension in green businesses, and what pitfalls do I need to look out for? I would also have liked to hear more about particular technologies in more detail. Gates discusses these, of course, but he keeps the details fairly brief and doesn’t get too technical. Importantly, he’s shy of disclosing too much about his own investments, lest he seem to be promoting his own financial interests. This is understandable, but even still it would not, I think, prevent him from disclosing more about the technologies themselves. When he does talk about his direct experience, for example with the CGIAR, this is effective. He also might have been more speculative, laying out more hypotheticals and potentials when discussing the need for breakthroughs, rather than just identifying the gaps. When discussing the solutions, Gates might have explored the drawbacks of particular technologies more. What environmental impact will mining for rare earth metals have, for example? We need these for batteries, but they are not without their own cost. Finally, I think that Gates could have done more to emphasise that making key changes to ‘go green’ will have benefits irrespective of climate change. The impact does not have to be “catastrophic” for us to want to change. It will be good for the air we breath to be cleaner; new technologies will improve our lives and create jobs. Importantly, we’re going to run out of fossil fuels eventually. We will need these technologies sooner or later. Why not start now, and use fossil fuels for other things, like the development of plastics and recyclables?
Despite these minor drawbacks, Gates is effective in achieving his key aims. I was left with a better understanding of the problem and the solutions needed. Over the course of the book Gates recaps his main points; the advice he gives at the end is perfectly actionable. Write to your representatives, don’t waste so much food, use energy more efficiently, choose green alternatives where affordable, and send signals through the market to producers that green products are viable. And the broader message is clear, too. Change will need to come from everywhere, from government at every level, private business and industry, as well as from individual citizens and consumers.
Bill Gates, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need (Allen Lane, 2021)