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“How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” by Bill Gates

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Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates knows a lot about climate change. He ought to, after investing more than a billion dollars over the last twenty year to help us get to the zero-emissions goal he believes we must reach. During that time, he’s met with top researchers, scientists, and policy makers, and has focused his own intellectual resources on understanding the problem and analyzing possible solutions. I was excited to read this book to see what I could learn from someone who has been in this fight for such a long time, and what I came away with was both useful and problematic.

Rebrandt engraving: Three Trees.
Three Trees, Rembrandt

First and foremost, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is a primer that gives us a helpful conceptual framework for thinking about climate change.

Here’s an example: 51 billion tons. That’s the amount of greenhouse gases we need to stop adding to the atmosphere each year in order to reach zero emissions. And this is a really useful number to know. Now when you read about a new carbon capture technology that can remove 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere a year, you’re in a position to answer the question “Is that a lot?” A thousand tons of anything is a lot, but compared to what we’re pumping into the atmosphere every year, it’s a tiny fraction. With our handy reference figure, we know that this new capture technology could be a useful, but it’s probably not a game changer.

Of course it’s not exactly 51 billion tons of CO2 we produce – that’s an estimate from recent years, I think. Gates doesn’t tell us where he got this number, just that it’s based on the “latest available data.” (Our emissions go up almost every year, with 2021 being the largest emissions year in history.) I’d kind of like to know, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s a pretty good number.

It’s also not exactly 51 billion tons of CO2 we’re producing – it’s carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). That’s a way of lumping together greenhouse gases of different strengths so they can be expressed as a single value. Take methane – it’s about 120 times more effective at capturing heat than carbon dioxide, so one ton of it is 120 tons of CO2e.

In short, the 51 billion tons figure is a useful approximation that masks the underlying variability and complexity. It is one of many such reference values we’re given to better understand the climate change conversation. This is something the book does really, really well. Some of the credit for this probably goes to Gates’s writing partner Josh Daniel (uncredited on the cover but given a shout-out in the acknowledgements). This is a very well-crafted book.

What else do we come away with? Well, the book breaks down what creates greenhouse gases:

  • Electricity (27%)
  • Manufacturing and construction (31%)
  • Agriculture and land use (19%)
  • Transportation (16%)
  • Cooling and heating (7%)

You may be surprised to learn that more greenhouse gases are produced by manufacturing than by electricity production or transport – producing steel and concrete are the main culprits here. Making one ton of steel means creating about two tons of CO2, and we produce a lot of steel – in the US, tons of it per person, every year.

Each sector gets its own chapter, in which Gates walks us through the landscape, looking at where the greenhouse gases come from and what, if anything, can be done about it.

So what’s his plan? In short, his answer is to innovate, invest, and develop on a huge scale. What we need is new technologies that can not only meet our existing needs, but address the markets for energy, manufacturing, and the rest that are projected to keep growing for the next several decades. Gates argues we have to meet those needs even as we move toward our goal of zero emissions.

One thing I liked about this book is that he gives a good sense of just how complicated any solution will have to be, at least in terms of the technology. For example, I was convinced by his argument that no single solution can provide enough renewable energy to meet our power needs. Instead of focusing on a silver bullet, we need to look for comprehensive sets of solutions, including intermediate solutions to meet our needs as we go.

The book provides a useful survey of the state of the technology in all of the major sectors he has identified, along with an assessment of the likely prospects and the gambles that could pay off but will probably come to nothing. His main point is we need to be investing in all of it, a lot more than we do now, and he has a lot of opinions on which options we should be pursuing, and why.

Now, this is a good place to segue into my criticisms of the book.

In focusing overwhelmingly on technology and investment, Gates has a lot of faith in market-based solutions to the climate crisis. In effect, he argues that we don’t have to fundamentally change the industrial, economic, or political conditions of the world – we just need to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in high-tech ventures over many years to solve these problems. And not only do we not need to change our current habits, he argues, but it would be unethical to address climate change by radically rethinking our current model of growth and consumption. Everyone in the world should have the same basic rights to the kinds of security and comfort such development allows.

For example, in his chapter on electricity, we read:

[E]ven more people should be getting and using electricity. In sub-Saharan Africa, less than half of the population has reliable power at home. And if you don’t have access to any electricity at all, even a simple task like recharging your mobile phone is difficult and expensive. You have to walk to a store and pay 25 cents or more to plug your phone into an outlet, hundreds of times more than people pay in developed countries.

Now, wait just a minute. Of course we don’t want to lock the poorest people in the world into material deprivation. But some quick internet research tells me that in 2010, residents of Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) used an average of 514 kilowatt-hours of energy per year, compared to 6,264 kilowatt-hours in the EU, and 13,395 in the US. You could quadruple energy consumption in the poorest parts of Africa and still use a fraction of what is being used in the United States today, per capita.

And this is an important point – agreeing that the developing world should have greater access to electricity and resources is not the same as agreeing that consumption patterns in the developed world do not need to change. But every time the question of reducing consumption comes up, Gates argues that it wouldn’t be right to do so because it would be unfair to the developing world. He treats those two claims as equivalent throughout the book, and this is a serious problem – at best, it’s deeply misleading.

Glossing over this distinction particularly raises questions when the author has personally invested a fortune in these speculative technologies. Rather than adjusting use patterns that have led us to a global crisis, he consistently favors investment in the precisely the kind of enterprise that equipped him with one of the world’s largest fortunes. The words “reduce” or “recycle” scarcely appear in this book, except in a passing comment in which Gates notes that he used to think trying to reduce consumption at all was pointless, but now has come to think there may be some benefit to it.

For what it’s worth, the IPCC, the gold-standard body for climate research, stated in their most recent Synthesis Report (AR5):

Efficiency enhancements and behavioural changes, in order to reduce energy demand compared to baseline scenarios without compromising development, are a key mitigation strategy in scenarios reaching atmospheric CO2-eq concentrations of about 450 to about 500 ppm by 2100 (robust evidence, high agreement). … Emissions can be substantially lowered through changes in consumption patterns (e.g., mobility demand and mode, energy use in households, choice of longer-lasting products) and dietary change and reduction in food wastes.

One could argue that this criticism is unfair, since Gates has personally invested so much time, energy, and money in addressing global poverty. But it is precisely because of his public role as a philanthropist that some of these dissonances resonate in such a sour key.

Given that he is clearly genuinely concerned with global poverty, for example, why does he never meaningfully address the question of who should pay for the hundreds of billions of dollars of investments he ask for? The plan sounds plainly regressive to me, to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars of public funds to back public-private partnerships and R&D, a lot of which will go on to enrich private companies. It could easily lead to a situation in which some of the companies that have profited the most from carbon emissions in the first place would shoulder a relatively small burden in paying for the solution, which would be distributed across tax payers.

Gates mostly prefers to set aside questions of politics, policy, and financing, to focus on technical solutions. I can certainly understand why. Why shouldn’t he, when the status quo has served him so well? It’s also an ugly, complex topic, and he presumably doesn’t want to add fuel to the partisan fire, or to alienate the same future administrations he’ll be asking for money to do this work in years ahead.

But it’s not obvious to me that a serious stakeholder in the climate debate has the right to opt out of the relevant economic and political questions, not least because they have immediate, concrete relevance. During an administration that bans discussion of climate change, most of his proposals would be non-starters.

Gates is concerned about climate change, but I’m not convinced that he’s concerned enough. The IPCC Synthesis Report also states:

Stabilizing temperature increase to below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels will require an urgent and fundamental departure from business as usual [emphasis added]. Moreover, the longer we wait to take action, the more it will cost and the greater the technological, economic, social and institutional challenges we will face.

This is consistent with the tone I see among scientists and journalists who specialize in the problem – major changes are needed now, including rethinking the way we think about consumption and growth.

So it concerns me to see Gates write things like this:

Science tells us that in order to avoid a climate catastrophe, rich countries should reach net-zero emissions by 2050. You’ve probably heard people say we should decarbonize deeply even sooner – by 2030.

Unfortunately, for all the reasons I’ve laid out in this book, 2030 is not realistic. Considering how fundamental fossil fuels are in our lives, there’s simply no way we’ll stop using them widely within a decade.

It’s true, I have heard people say we should decarbonize deeply by 2030 – namely, the IPCC scientists who warned that if we want to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C , our emissions will have to peak before 2025, and to be reduced by 43% by 2030.

Do we care about keeping the increase under 1.5°C? How much worse would it be to get to 2°C? Well, according to Scientific American, 2.0°C instead of 1.5 “could spell the difference between the Arctic being ice-free once a decade and once a century; between coral reefs being almost entirely wiped out and up to 30 percent hanging on; and between a third of the world’s population being exposed to extreme heat waves and a tenth.”

Whether or not our reduction targets are achievable is a fair question, but I think Gates is soft-selling the urgency of the problem. I don’t believe he mentions plants or animals in this book at all, except in the context of farming, but coral reefs are home to 25% of ocean wildlife species. There are urgent questions about our moral responsibility to life on this planet, as well as practical questions about the viability of human civilization as we know it if the major ecosystems around us collapse.

How much are we willing to change in order to avoid these kinds of outcomes? So far, looking at what goes on the in world, the collective answer appears to be “not very much.” As David Wallace-Wells noted, in 2020 there was not a single country that was on track to meet the emissions reduction targets set by the Paris Agreement. In the last two weeks, Germany blocked EU plans to eliminate internal-combustion car engines in the Union by 2035, the EU moved to classify nuclear power and natural gas as a “green,” and the US Supreme Court ruled on West Virginia et al. vs. the EPA.

At the end of the day, Bill Gates is who he is – he’s a philanthropic tech billionaire who has done a lot of good, and in my opinion that includes writing this book. I believe there are real problems with it, but they are mostly sins of omission, and if we need a range of technological solutions to help us fight climate change, surely we also need a diversity of opinions and emphases in the coalition of those who take the fight seriously. We have to critically engage with ourselves and with one another, but at the end of the day, Gates is on the side of taking climate change seriously and taking it on, and he puts his money where his mouth is. This is a useful book, and it could change some minds in the right way.


Written by Mesocosm

July 8, 2022 at 6:19 am

Posted in Climate, Reviews