The book breaks down the sources of these emissions into a few broad categories – making things, plugging in, and getting around – and Gates knows how to frame issues in terms with which everybody should be able to engage, without dumbing down the material. At its highest level, his strategy is simple: make power generation zero-carbon by replacing fossil fuels with renewables and nuclear power, and then electrify as much of our activities as possible.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster details the transformation necessary to reverse the effects of decades of catastrophic practices. We need, Gates calculates, to remove 51bn tonnes of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere every year. Failing to do so would cost more than the 1.5 million lives already lost to Covid-19 and could cause, he calculates, five times more deaths than the Spanish flu a century ago...
Gates clearly prefers science to politics – “I think more like an engineer than a political scientist” – and his touching, admirable faith in science and reason reminds me of a similar faith, this time in economic rationality, held by the great prewar economist John Maynard Keynes. His breakthrough in economic thinking offered a way out of the world depression and mass unemployment of the 1930s. But he was unable to persuade the political leaders of the day, and in frustration decried politics as “the survival of the unfittest”.
Gates is a classic example of a “first-time climate dude”, believes Mann. This phenomenon is “the tendency for members of a particular, privileged demographic group (primarily middle-aged, almost exclusively white men) to think they can just swoop in… and solve the great problems that others have spent decades unable to crack”. The result is a mess, “consisting of fatally bad takes and misguided framing couched in deeply condescending mansplaining”.
Despite not having the answers, Gates is asking the right questions, which many of his fellow optimists tend to overlook. Two-thirds of the global economy are already committed to a net zero plan, and policymakers are already involved in many of the conundrums that Gates lays out: how to ensure a steady power supply as you make the switch to renewable energy; how to incentivise the use of electric vehicles; how to shift whole cities off the gas grid.
But Gates is concerned with how to ensure developing countries, many of which will be worse hit by the unavoidable impacts of climate change created by richer nations, do not get left behind. That’s not just a moral question; without alternatives developing countries will have no choice but to embed the same polluting behaviours as industrialised nations did.
The relentless practicality of the book combined with Gates’s firm faith in innovation do not promote despair. He exudes optimism; things will get better, not least because, as John Lennon once sang, they can’t get no worse.
“It’s hard to think,” Gates concludes, “of a better response to a miserable 2020 than spending the next ten years dedicating ourselves to this ambitious goal.” OK, he’s rich, but, come on, he seems nice.
Gates’s book does not hold all the answers, nor is it everyone’s cup of tea. It reads at times like an investment prospectus for some of the companies and technologies in the climate field, which figures, given that investing in those firms is precisely what Gates does. Then again, it also contains some astonishing revelations. For instance: “If enough pieces come together, plastics could one day become a carbon sink — a way to remove carbon rather than emit it.” That’s right: it’s plausible that we could take carbon out of the air and put it into plastic, with the upshot that those plastic bottles we are often told are ruining the planet could end up saving it.
t all makes for a meaty manifesto which Gates hopes can offer sufficient variety to appeal across political divides and “shift the conversation” away from the polarisation and misinformation that has clouded discussion about climate change up until now.
He concludes by admitting that “it can be hard to be hopeful about the future” but remains optimistic that we can “preserve the planet for generations to come” because he knows what technology and the passion of the young in particular can achieve.
All will surely hope he’s right.