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[Review] 'How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need'

July 12, 2021

Book_cover_how to avoid a climate disaster_philantopicWe are toast. Climate change is here, and things are not getting better. In the United States alone we are seeing unprecedented wildfires in California, mind-numbing heat in the Pacific Northwest, a mega-drought stretching from the Great Plains to the Pacific coast, and the Colorado River running dry, just to mention a few recent headlines. And that list only hints at the immediate — to say nothing of the future — challenges to our ability to grow food, earn a living, and raise our families. We have known this for decades, and while we have made tentative steps toward solving some problems (clean air, clean water, CAFE standards), we have yet to engage climate change as the existential threat it truly is. In How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, Bill Gates wants to shake us out of our complacency. If we as individuals, as a nation, as a global community, don't get to work fast, we are, like I said, toast.

It's noteworthy that Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, wrote this book in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, where his decades of work in global health (think polio and malaria) and his avuncular be-sweatered persona helped him play a vital role as a reliable explainer in the face of the U.S. federal government's inaction. His clear and persuasive language suggested: Here is someone who understands what is going on and what needs to be done to get to the other side. So too in his book, Gates proffers a diagnosis and possible roadmap to slow global warming (it's too late to stop it) and mitigate the worst of what this change will mean for the estimated ten billion people who will share the planet come 2100.

To summarize the dilemma in How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: Every year humans put fifty-one billion tons of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) into the earth's atmosphere and, as a result, the earth is heating up faster and faster and becoming less and less livable. If we don't get to zero emissions by 2050, the scientists tell us, it's game over, and the ecosystems we have benefited from and relied upon for millennia will irrevocably collapse. It is not a question of if, but of when; not a question of reduced crop yield, but of any yield at all; not a question of whether sea levels will rise, but of how soon and how high.

In the late eighteenth century, Thomas Malthus (he of the Malthusian dilemma) feared that overpopulation would outstrip his native England's ability to feed its people, resulting in the collapse of order, economy, and civilization. Over the past two centuries, while hunger, starvation, and famine have forever been at the door, we have always set that pessimism aside. Through science and innovation, that is, people using science and leveraging great ideas in new ways — from chemical fertilizer to hardier, more productive grains, to removing toxins from industrial exhaust — we have, despite our worst fears, somehow figured out how to feed, sustain, and improve ourselves. For Gates the time is now or never to get to work in unprecedented fashion. Being the third richest person in the world with unlimited resources, comfort, and access may have something to do with it, but Gates is an unabashed optimist; the challenge of climate change is massive, but so too is his unbridled insistence that we have it in our power — to use Thomas Paine's phrase — "to begin the world again."

The good news, Gates tells us, is that we know what to do, and in many respects, we already have the science and innovation at the ready to march into that brave new world. The arguments made here echo basic economics: Consumers (people and nations) will move toward better choices if the cost of going green (what he refers to as the "Green Premium") is low enough. To entice ever-reluctant consumers to get off fossil fuels, we need lots and lots of clean, renewably sourced, no-carbon electricity, and we need it tomorrow. And even if we had all that clean energy today, we would still need to ramp up the capacity of our electric grid at more than three times the current rate and sustain that growth for the next thirty years. We need to accelerate the transition to all-electric transportation and revamp how we heat and cool our homes. We need to eat less meat and find ways for the meat we do eat to be produced while releasing less methane. We also need to find a way to capture greenhouse gases from the industrial and construction sectors. The list is long.

Many of these problems have solutions, while others, like how to capture carbon dioxide released from concrete — a staggering 8 percent of the global total of all greenhouse gases — are still waiting for a seismic technological fix. But Gates — late to the game on climate change — is buoyant about the prospects of his own efforts, as well as the collaborations he is encouraging on the global stage. For himself, Gates admits that this book exists awkwardly between his hopes for the future and his personal business interests. He is bullish on clean nuclear energy and plant-based burgers, two areas where he has investments. He's also bullish on the Breakthrough Energy coalition he helped foster around the 2015 Paris climate conference, as well as the multilateral Mission Innovation group, which is funding research on clean energy. All that is to the good.

The challenge is not that there are no green shoots of hopefulness, but that good vibes alone will not get us to zero by 2050. Gates praises the $6.4 billion in funding from Mission Innovation, but what is that investment relative to the size of what needs to be done? For Gates, the fact that the Paris Climate Agreement happened at all is a sign that collaboration on this issue is possible serving as a point of departure — especially now that the U.S. has rejoined the accords as the world heads toward a new round of climate talks in November. But the scale of the problem overshadows these efforts.

Our problem is a lack of will — political, economic, and cultural — to make the investments we need to avoid an actual cataclysm. It is good to learn that Gates divested from fossil fuel companies years ago — for moral reasons, if not because he thought doing so would make a difference. And kudos for using renewable fuels on his private jet, even though their Green Premium is more than double the cost of typical fuels. But relatively small specific gestures will not change the geometry of this very large puzzle: "We won't get to zero unless we get this right," Gates warns. To do that, we need a massive unprecedented investment of time, talent, and treasure on all fronts, the likes of which human society has never seen. This is not a moon shot; it is a moon shot every year for the next thirty years. And that makes the current fight over federal infrastructure funding look like a squabble over the Oxford comma.

Gates is notably unpolitical here — he repeatedly mentions the climate change movement being led by "young people" without saying the name Greta Thunberg; he leans in on the imperative of investments that do right by America and the world's poor without mentioning the Green New Deal. And perhaps that is because he knows that some among his audience, that is, those he actually needs to persuade, would sooner throw his book — and their own future — into the fire than align themselves with their cultural foes.  

It's a bit of puzzle as to why this call to arms against climate disaster is being published as an old-school hardcover book — that is, using trees. (This book was read for review as an ebook.) In 2021 a book is an equally curious choice of medium, considering the opportunities and media platforms available for sharing and exponentially leveraging the book's core message. Why no website, no teaching materials, no collaborations, no sustained online engagement? If the goal was to get the book into as many hands as possible — especially into the hands of those who disagree — why not just release it, for free, on the Gates Notes blog? But no matter the medium or the messenger, it is essential to repeat often and loudly its most-American of messages: We can do this — we must do this — because failure is not an option.

Daniel X Matz is foundation web development manager at Candid.

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  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."


    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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