books climate change technology

Book review: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, by Bill Gates

I know some people have grumbled about Bill Gates writing a book on climate change. But if we have to have billionaires, we want them to be involved in the biggest challenges facing humanity, rather than firing their money into space*. Even if you disagree, this is likely to be the most read climate book of the year. Politicians who read one climate book a decade will probably pick this one. It’s worth reading because it’s going to be influential.

Because he’s a very smart man, Gates is aware of the grumbling. “The world is not exactly lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do” he says at the outset. “I can’t deny being a rich guy with an opinion. I do believe, though, that it is an informed opinion, and I am always trying to learn more.”

On that point, I would agree. As we’ve seen with his work on poverty, health, or unpopular topics like toilets, Gates has a huge capacity to take in information. He calls in experts and asks questions, and he has a genuine enthusiasm for topics others might find very boring, such as fertiliser or cement or the workings of the US energy grid. This pays off in the book’s approach, which is to distil the enormous wicked problem of climate change into categories that are easy to understand. There are five of them and they get a chapter each:

  • How we plug in
  • How we make things
  • How we grow things
  • How we get around
  • How we keep cool and stay warm

Across these five intuitively named chapters we get an analysis of renewable energy (alongside other options such as nuclear), low carbon agriculture, or air conditioning. Having worked in development, Gates has an eye on the difference energy can make in poorer countries, so that gets factored in here in ways that many climate books forget. The chapter on materials also covers a number of things that don’t get enough attention. “What’s your plan for cement?” is Gates’ shorthand reminder that every sector matters.

As you would expect, technological solutions are to the fore, showing where there are good technologies that can be accelerated, and where they are yet to be developed. Aviation, for example, has no substantial answer to low-carbon, long-distance flights. For some, that leaves no option but to suggest we do less of it, which is never an answer for Gates:

“When somebody wants toast for breakfast, we need to make sure there’s a system in place that can deliver the bread, the toaster, and the electricity to run the toaster without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. We aren’t going to solve the climate problem by telling people not to eat toast.”

That’s an appealingly no-nonsense explanation, but there are plenty of examples of things where less would have multiple benefits. Most Americans would be healthier eating less meat, so ruling it out misses the opportunity for a win-win. The book has one sentence about walking and cycling in amongst its pages on electric cars, but there are multiple problems with traffic, well beyond carbon. And there are many advantages to active transport. The book’s unwillingness to countenance behaviour change is frustrating, as if (provided it is low carbon) consumer capitalism is the best of all possible worlds.

Still, Gates writes with clarity, the rigour of an analytical mind, and with glimpses of self-deprecating humour. He is aware of climate justice and the need for policy changes alongside technology – “techo-fixes are not sufficient, but they are necessary.” And that’s a pretty good way to sum up the book. The perspectives of American tech billionaires are not sufficient to avoid a climate disaster, but they are necessary.

*See Jeff Bezos, who once said that “the only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. That is basically it.” Work on major challenges and space travel are not mutually exclusive, and I’m not opposed to space missions. It’s the lack of awareness and imagination – ‘that’s basically it’ – that is most disturbing. More recent interviews suggest he may have changed his mind.

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