Book Review: How To Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates
BY AVANTIKA GOYAL
Art by Sophia Hidalgo
When discussing the problem of climate change, many advocates argue that it's the billionaires and capitalists who've led us here. This is why it piqued my interest when I heard that Bill Gates, a man known for being a powerful business magnate, was writing a book on this issue. However, after spending my spring break immersed in this book, I was delighted by what he had to say. Gates has always impressed the public with his far-reaching vision; he brought us Microsoft, the Gates Foundation, and now this, an incredibly thoughtful proposal for the innovative solutions for climate change.
Most reputable books on the environment have been written by scientists and social activists, making Gates' entrepreneurial perspective rather refreshing. Early on in the book, he humbly notes that "I'm an imperfect messenger on climate change. The world is not exactly lacking in rich men with big ideas...", but also asserts that he's a technophile and believes in the power of technology to solve the greatest of problems. Fortunately, his lack of expertise on the subject made this book very reader-friendly and accessible to anyone interested in the topic. Meanwhile, his technical and professional background gives a degree of credibility to the solutions he offers.
Additionally, his work with the Gates Foundation offers another unique angle to his book. He mentions that his first interaction with the issue of climate change was when he started tackling energy poverty. His goal to bring electricity to underdeveloped countries appeared to be in direct conflict with bringing global GHG emissions to zero, placing Gates in an interesting position where his philanthropic pursuits might actually harm the world as a whole if the energy provided was sourced from fossil fuels. Thus, he comes to this sound conclusion – clean energy needs to be made as cheap as possible so developing countries can continue to industrialize without inadvertently contributing to the climate crisis. His central thesis over the course of the book is that through a meaningful collaboration between corporations and policymakers, the world can effectively realize this goal.
When describing what companies and innovators need to do, he focuses on five specific sectors that generate the most emissions: electricity, manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, and heating and cooling systems. With each sector composing a chapter, he lists various technologies that are currently being developed or employed to reduce emissions, followed by his own view on how they can further progress. Unsurprisingly, the technological solution in most of these areas leads us back to the importance of cleaning the electricity grid. His book makes it clear that tackling the electricity problem could eliminate a large percentage of our total emissions. Luckily, he does spend considerable time unpacking the complexities of the energy sector and showing how renewables could be best implemented. He even argues in favor of nuclear power, despite it often being a controversial form of energy.
While his creative solutions appear well-researched and assuring, I did have some reservations with how optimistic his entire book felt. Since he isn't an economist or policymaker, I worry that there are some areas of the climate change conversation that he may have overlooked. Simply bringing down the costs of carbon-free technology might not be enough to transform our reality when fossil fuels are so deeply ingrained in our economic culture. With many of these problematic sectors being heavily injected with government subsidies, it'll take more than just low prices to convince politicians to change their behaviors. Moreover, as clean-energy solutions get cheaper, so do the GHG-emitting alternatives. Given this competitive push on prices, it feels unlikely that governments will put their full support behind the new and less reliable option of clean-energy without facing resistance.
Despite these concerns, I think Gates's final chapters do a decent job at summarizing the government's responsibility in the fight against climate change. He states that the main task of the government is to encourage innovation through public funding and drive down prices by purchasing these new products. While Gates doesn't provide a complete framework for how we can get here given our legislative status quo, there's no denying that there is some truth to his plan. It's clear that lack of funding is a major obstacle in our fight and — as seen in many scientific breakthroughs in the past — it is ultimately the government's role to provide the necessary capital to make things happen. It's also their job to help drive down the prices once the invention enters the market. Gates compares this to the development of the Internet; not only did the U.S. government invest a great deal in R&D during the early stages, they also committed to purchasing many units for its own operations. Gates argues that a similar process needs to occur for green technology if we ever want them to become affordable and ubiquitous.
Ultimately, Gates's new book is a journey into the endless potential of technology to solve humanity's imminent climate crisis. It is written with a sense of urgency, as Gates makes it clear that the window to reverse this crisis is steadily closing. While this book doesn't cover all the challenges that currently face the movement, it does offer an extremely comprehensive view of the possible solutions worth pursuing — especially for innovators. From climate change novices to fervent advocates, I urge everyone to spend a weekend reading this book. You won't be disappointed by the ideas espoused here by one of the world's most cherished billionaires.