How Not To Avoid A Climate Disaster: A Review

Years ago in graduate school, one of my English literature seminars was treated to a peculiar presentation. The course was Energy and the Environment, and our professor decided to invite a climate activist friend of his to help connect our high minded material to the real world.

Only a few weeks had passed since Elon Musk had unveiled Tesla’s Model 3 to the world, and electric vehicles were experiencing a major moment. It seemed that thanks to Elon, we were soon to witness the end of the internal combustion engine. Still fresh off the optimism of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, hopes for technological solutions were running high. Musk was riding a wave of popularity.

Our visitor felt differently. Elon Musk, he said breathlessly, was actually a grave danger to the climate. His boisterous advocacy of electric vehicles and green technology, far from being an act of virtue, would doom us all. Why? Because the climate crisis was creating a unique opportunity to question our entire paradigm of infinite economic growth, and at this crucial moment Elon was taking us down the wrong path.

Musk wasn’t offering a new paradigm, he was reassuring us that even in the face of the climate crisis, the old one could continue. That we could still have private vehicle ownership, low cost global travel, and cities built around the ubiquity of the car. In other worlds, everything that we already had that was pushing the planet into massive ecological overshoot, we could keep. All we had to do was swap out a few engine parts and spend a lot of money. We were hoodwinking ourselves into believing we were radicals, when we were far from it.

So it goes with How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. For better and for worse, Bill Gates’ book is one of the clearest visions of a technocratic response to climate change. It distills the complexities of climate change and its drivers into an approachable and concise work, whilst qualifying with hard numbers what needs to be done with regards to investment in green technologies.

Yet ultimately it’s a book whose solutions fit neatly into the status quo, offering no real need to change. It is decidedly unradical. It presents us with a crisis with less than 10 years to solve and offers suggestions for how to slowly come to a solution over 30 years. It fails to live up to its title.

How would Bill Gates solve climate change? In a nutshell, invest a lot more money into developing key green technologies, and let the policymakers, economists, and market forces do the rest. The climate crisis can be overcome simply through the right combination of technological, economic, and logistical innovations.

Bill states unequivocally that “there are no realistic paths to zero that involve abandoning these fossil fuels completely”. This is true. Unfortunately in much of climate discourse, at least on social media, is the perception — particularly with the “100 companies are responsible for the bulk of our emissions” statistic — that to solve the crisis we can simply turn off all our refineries tomorrow and chop off the head of every billionaire.

The reality of course is that oil companies exist to meet the market demand that we provide. Believing that citizens, especially in the developing world, will immediately give up the benefits of the cheap fuels that have enabled the last 40 years of their living standard improvements is a non-starter. Global energy demand, Bill says, “will go up 50 percent by 2050, and if nothing else changes, carbon emissions will go up by nearly as much”.

Gates also doesn’t mince words about just how symbiotic our society’s relationship with fossil fuels has become. Quantifying our addiction to these materials, and the physical challenges inherent in making green technologies as efficient as fossil fuels are is a prevailing theme to the book. Fossil fuels, Gates says, “are like water”. They’re so pervasive that “it can be hard to grasp all the ways in which they touch our lives”.

The book is thus about breaking this GDP-to-emissions connection. It serves up a breakdown of our primary energy and industrial process, and a methodical examination of what green technologies need to be invented or scaled up for each one. A key concept is what Gates calls the ‘Green Premium,’ or the immediate difference in cost between a dirty energy source or activity and a clean one. The higher the Green Premium, the less economical the green option is. At the moment, most energy sources and industrial processes carry large Green Premiums, making them much less preferable. Gates’ goal is to eventually bring the green premium to zero. Accomplishing this feat will, for all intents and purposes, solve the climate crisis.

For new energy sources, Gates calls for nuclear fission and fusion, offshore wind, geothermal, and an improvement of battery technology. For industrial processes, he calls for greater electrification, carbon capture adoption, and overall better energy efficiency. For agriculture, we need better cow breeds, more plant-based meat, and less food waste. When it comes to transportation, we need to use less carbon to make our vehicles (which should be electric), and find ways to make alternative fuels more affordable. Finally for heating and cooling, we should electrify our furnaces as much as we can, decarbonize the power grid as much as we can, and use energy more efficiently.

How will we achieve all of this? Governments at every level must do so through green investments, and using their economies of scale to help facilitate this transition with procurements. Clean energy and climate-related R&D funding needs to quintuple, while more money needs to be spent on riskier technologies with higher rewards. Citizens must pressure their officials into taking action. He even lists the technologies that need to be developed.

And there we have it. Despite Bill’s focus on realism and the scale of the challenge, it’s all still rather neat and tidy. More importantly, it fits perfectly into our existing system of economic growth and resource consumption.

Therein lies the problem with Climate Crisis. For Gates, solving climate change will come through altering and refitting our energy sources, not removing or even reducing them. Our current social and economic systems, alongside our broader ideology of unlimited growth and behaviours of consumption, will remain.

I don’t doubt Bill’s brilliance or his ability to tackle complex problems. Through his career as the founder of Microsoft and more recently the large impact he’s had in improving global sanitation through the Gates Foundation, he’s proven himself to be a uniquely capable systems thinker.

Yet global emissions levels are still generally correlated with economic growth. While the goal of the book is finding ways to break this correlation, we’ve made little progress and time is extremely short. By Gates’ own admission, unless humanity sees its annual emissions decline by at least 30% by 2030, we will commit ourselves to a hot house planet.

Regardless of how much money you pump into corporate and government coffers, you’re relying on the slow inertia of institutions to discover, build, and rollout massive new technologies to reduce our footprint by large, double digit percentages. A crisis plan would have tangible goals for what to do every year between now and 2050. Especially the next ten years. Where are the financial plans? Where are the immovable deadlines? Where is the immediate listing of investment dollars ready go tomorrow?

Yet Climate Crisis offers no year by year roadmap of reaching this target less than 9 years from now.

Should be easy.

Wonkish policy prescriptions to affect energy demand like carbon taxes are briefly mentioned, but that broaches on another topic that the book almost completely ignores: the political likelihood of implementing such policies. While Bill concedes that we can’t just turn everything off, he in effect suggests that we should think about doing something close.

Funding and innovation is only half the picture of solving climate change. How can we create a green transition while still growing the global economy, without making life significantly more expensive to threaten a social pushback that would make such policies impossible? The answer is that we probably can’t. Something has to give.

Assuming that the green transition won’t be more expensive than he predicts, of which many observers disagree, we have already seen examples of political pushback. In 2018 when President Macron tried to impose a modicum of what future carbon taxes are supposed to do by modestly raising fuel taxes, he ignited the strongest protest movement France has seen in decades. The increase was canceled.

At times this contradiction can be almost farcical. Earlier this summer, after the most devastating IPCC report yet was met with much fanfare and surly proclamations from the Biden Administration, that same government called on OPEC to increase their oil drilling quotas less than five days later. In the face of such frightening evidence, the Democratic President that controlled all three branches of government still refused to suffer the political blowback from US consumers facing higher gas prices. How much longer can these these two priorities exist simultaneously?

Climate Crisis doesn’t offer a specific roadmap for rectifying this, besides suggesting that “in extreme cases, when electricity is especially hard to come by, we should have the ability to shed demand, meaning we’d ration electricity”. For obvious reasons this is a fundamentally unserious suggestion.

The most telling moment of this book comes near the end. When briefly discussing geo-engineering technology, Bill makes an almost unbelievable admission: that geo-engineering is probably the “only known way that we could hope to lower the earth’s temperature within years or decades without crippling the economy,” and that “there may come a day when we don’t have a choice”.

So, everything the book has explored up until that point, as straightforward as it sounds, is probably all for naught. Those technologies I’ve explained to you? We’re probably not going to develop and roll them out in time and we’ll have to go with something else.

This is of course not said outright, but the implication is there. The whole book is then fully revealed to be an intellectual exercise. It’s real purpose is to offer 200 pages of talking points and calls-to-action that you can use to showcase your intellectual commitment to solving climate change, not as a serious roadmap.

My name is Chris. I work as a Growth Marketer.

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Chris Edwards

Chris Edwards

My name is Chris. I work as a Growth Marketer.

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