How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need
Bill Gates, 2021
Billionaires are running our world, and mostly doing a lousy job of it. Their main focus seems to be accumulating more and more money, spending it on their pet projects like space travel or private islands, and ignoring the rest of us as irrelevant. Bill Gates is one of the richest men in the world, behind Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, but the co-founder of Microsoft has at least made some attempts to help others through his foundation and books like this one. I read this book with a skeptical eye because I was sure he had a hidden motive for his concern on climate change, but I sure couldn't find one.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is an ambitious book that actually does a good job of laying out many of the problems with climate change, and I learned things I had not known before. The more important part of the title was the second half- "The solutions we have and the breakthroughs we need." The solutions we have so far are sadly insufficient to fix this enormous problem, but Gates is optimistic (you have to be) about scientific and technological breakthroughs that will bring climate change under control. Without them we are all screwed.
Gates is upfront about his lack of standing to combat global warming. His carbon footprint with all of his private jets, huge homes and cars, and billionaire lifestyle is larger than that of some third world cities. He's aware of his carbon footprint, and is working to minimize it, as well as compensate by mitigating carbon elsewhere with carbon credits.
The situation as Gates presents it is similar to what we've heard many times before.
- Planet earth is gradually warming, with the threats of fires, floods, rising sea levels and environmental destruction raising with every fraction of a degree that we see in global temperature rise.
- The cause of this is the greenhouse effect, where certain gasses emitted by human activity accumulate in the upper atmosphere and prevent heat from escaping.
- To fix the problem mankind needs to go from emitting the current 51 Billion tons of greenhouse gasses per year to zero by the year 2050. That's a tall order.
One of the first chapters is titled "This will be hard", in a nod to the reality that changing the way the world consumes energy and materials will be a huge task full of obstacles and resistance. Most climate pioneers gloss over this part, because the task of re-wiring entire economies in just one generation seems impossible to many, especially when there is so much resistance from politicians and stake-holders in the old way of doing things. Will it take several major climate disasters for governments and businesses to get serious about this? Probably. Gates doesn't go there, but at least he acknowledges the hard road ahead.
Gates talks about the "Green premium", or the additional costs related to climate friendly technologies. Costs are key when dealing with large, capitalist enterprises, and confronting this issue is key to making things happen. The big problem today is that most of the external damage done by carbon emissions isn't reflected in the price of products. They are externalized to society as a whole or unfortunates who have to live next to refineries or factories. To make a cost of something truly reflect the damage it does to the environment, a carbon tax has to be incorporated into its price. Only then will the green premiums look more attainable and the work progress in converting from cheap things like coal to more complex energy sources like wind, solar, and nuclear.
Part of the problem with climate change conversations is that few of us understand the scope of what has to change, how it could change, and when it needs to change by. Gates breaks down the 51 billion tons of carbon into five categories of our economy that produce it. Only by fixing all five parts can we truly move towards a zero carbon world. Here are the five:
1- The electric grid (27% of all carbon emissions) This is the area we traditionally think of but it is only a quarter of the problem. We rely heavily on fossil fuels to run our electricity- coal, natural gas, and oil. Some of the technologies that need to be developed here involve solar and offshore wind, nuclear fission and fusion, geothermal, and battery storage. In countries like China, coal plants are still going online, and the only hope for coal is if a technology can be found to re-capture the carbon after the coal is burned. There is a lot of work being done here, but much more needs to be done, because all economies rely on cheap, reliable sources of electricity to run their computers, lights, and devices.
2- Manufacturing (31% of all carbon) Most of us never see these processes, but we rely on them. The biggest offenders here are steel, plastic, and cement, which all require high temperatures and large amounts of carbon emissions in their industrial processes. Cement, the main ingredient of concrete, is vital to most roads, bridges and buildings, but it produces high levels of carbon when limestone is burned. There are some alternative processes that would be less damaging, but they all have green premiums that make them cost prohibitive. We need clean, carbon-free electricity to run manufacturing without burning fossil fuels wherever possible. And of course we need much more research and development to improve how we make, recycle, and re-think the industrial building blocks we need to function as a society.
3- Agriculture (19% of all carbon) Our current system of growing crops and raising animals is very destructive and needs to change. Cattle are one of the main culprits because they emit methane, a much more destructive greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Cow burps and farts may be worse for the planet than all car emissions. Plus to raise cattle we cut down entire forests, which are carbon sinks, disrupting the cycle of regeneration that trees provide. The way we grow crops like corn and soybeans releases large amounts of carbon from the soils, which in turn become less fertile as time goes on. There are many ways we could improve our food systems that would get us closer to a zero carbon goal, including new ways to fertilize and till soils, wasting less food, and moving away from beef and dairy products towards more plant foods. The dietary changes that would have to accompany this are mind-boggling, but perhaps food companies can find new junk foods that are less destructive, especially if a carbon tax comes with hamburgers.
4- Transportation (16% of all carbon) This is the other area we typically think about when climate change discussions come about. Car manufacturers are already on top of this one, and most are setting the goal of no gasoline-powered cars by 2030. Unfortunately, cars can last 10-15 years, so it will be decades before the biggest gas guzzlers leave the road (though more taxes at the pump would accelerate that change). Mass transit also needs to be a part of the solution for large cities. Electricity may be a solution for smaller vehicles, but no one yet has a solution for the big ones- airplanes, trains, ocean liners and barges, or rocket ships. Gasoline is one of the most powerful fuels on earth and replacing it with carbon-neutral alternatives will require much more research and development to discover alternative fuels. The only other solution involves much less travel and shipping, which is the opposite of where globalization has taken us the past 50 years.
5- Cooling and Warming (7% of all carbon) F-gases, which are used in many air conditioning systems, are among the most damaging greenhouse gasses there are. The greenhouse effect of these emissions is thousands of times worse than it is for CO2. Scientists are already hard at work on alternatives to these gasses, and hopefully safer alternatives will be found. It is ironic that the one thing that would make climate change bearable, air conditioning, could be the thing that makes it much, much worse. Electric heat pumps need to replace oil and gas burning furnaces and water heaters, and there are many clever ways that have been proposed to make indoor environments comfortable while doing the least damage.
Gates closes the book with a plea for more government intervention, something that's unlikely to happen in the US until its anti-government bias and paranoia of the last 60 years fades away. Governments would have the power to steer research and development to the right areas where no profit-centered private companies could justify to their shareholders. Regulations could level the playing field and impose carbon taxes that reflect the true costs of doing businesses and the damages that are now being paid by innocent victims of climate disasters. Government programs could be used to help with the pains of any transition- training those in dying industries like coal and petroleum and getting them ready for the new jobs that a new carbon-free economy would require. And most importantly governments could set the goals and incentives that need to happen to get us to zero carbon by 2050, something that private industry is incapable of doing on its own.
For the past decade I've felt pessimistic that we aren't taking climate change seriously enough. The tribal nature of American politics in the 21st century requires people to sort into two camps, and one of those camps has chosen climate change denial as a hill they are willing to die on. Science and meteorology have found themselves hostage in the tribal warfare that questions the motives of the climate data and the very nature of reality itself. The polarized media environment has made consensus a very hard thing to obtain anymore.
That, coupled with the millions of dollars that fossil fuel companies are using to muddy the waters and throw doubt on the science makes decisive action unlikely until we get over our delusions of American exceptionalism. Some actually see climate change as a net positive that will open up the Arctic to development and commerce, but they are kidding themselves. The evidence will continue to mount as things heat up, and the question remains- what will it finally take for people to finally grasp that something needs to be done? Massive droughts and refugee crises? Out of control wildfires? Repeated flooding on a major scale? Seems to me we are already there.
I'm encouraged that one of the world's richest billionaires, Bill Gates, is focused on this problem. Elon Musk, number two on the list of billionaires, has offered a $100 million prize for the person who comes up with a way to capture carbon out of the atmosphere economically. So far that technology seems way out of reach, but it would be a game changer. What I get from Gates' book is that we need a LOT of innovation on all fronts, and we need help from all nations, major corporations, large universities, and regular people to tackle this problem in just one generation. Gates encourages his readers to educate themselves, vote for candidates who promise to address the climate crisis, and vote with their dollars for products that have the least carbon footprint.
It's easy to be pessimistic about climate change, but this is an optimistic book full of ideas and solutions. Climate change is THE signature issue of the 21st century. It will be a true test of humanity to see how we meet the challenges that lay ahead.