Innovation That Matters

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

Green Reads

There is a lot of good in “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”, but Gates doesn't always hit the mark regarding where responsibility lies.

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Reading a book by Bill Gates involves the preexisting knowledge that you are delving into the expertise of a man best known for his work not only in tech but in the energy and charitable sectors too. “Why should we listen to a man who claims to be an expert on so many things?”, you might ask. Even the title “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” is empirical, claiming to give us outright answers to a question that can be overwhelming.

Gates’s response is that overcoming the climate crisis necessitates the knowledge, awareness and collaboration of it all — from science to government, activism to technology. 

There is a lot of good in “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” and the way in which it should be appraised as a whole depends on how much of a climate expert the reader already is. For example, some critics have deemed it a little too simplistic, with no real new insight and information relayed that someone even a little interested in the environment wouldn’t already know. Others less technically or visually-minded, however, have found the number of statistics and graphs piled up to be a little overwhelming. On the whole, the content of the book is well organised and clearly presented, with the science broken down into simple concepts and the alternatives for a greener future clearly explained.

A significant criticism levelled against the book is that Gates is a successful billionaire preaching to the masses about how to live their lives, whilst owning multiple mansions around the world and producing more air miles than the majority of us — he even admits to taking his private jet to the Paris Summit. However, Gates is vocally self-aware of his own personal fallbacks throughout, in terms of both his own carbon footprint and his knowledge gaps. Without labouring the point, he also outlines how he is personally tackling this: for example, although transparent about having invested in fossil fuels in the past, he explains how he is now using sustainable jet fuel made from renewable and alternative raw material in replacement of petroleum-based fuels and has cut down on his meat intake. 

But I think the criticism is also somewhat obsolete. There is an argument that it is entirely because Gates is so famous and successful that he should have written this book in the first place, in order to give the issue as much traction as possible. For someone with as much influence as the co-founder of Microsoft to put everything together cohesively and humorously, makes him an appropriate person to successfully counter the misinformation and doubt constantly spread among the public about climate change.

Indeed, he clears information up that is so often used against environmental arguments, such as the fact that being environmentally friendly means halting our energy use. In fact, he explains, we don’t need to stop using energy — we just need to make what we do use “carbon-free”; indeed, using clean, renewable energy would allow us to use a lot more of it. As an example, Gates refers to the third world countries in which his own Gates Foundation invests, and how they need to use more energy in the future, in order to get out of poverty and disease and ultimately contribute to net-zero. 

Gates thus outlines clearly what will happen if we do nothing to counter climate change, but also what we have the capacity to do to change the outcome. He clearly and efficiently explains why fossil fuels are so cheap and what happens when we release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, before demonstrating how we might be able to make them carbon neutral in the near future. He tells us about the Green Premium, the limits of solar and wind energy, about the benefits of nuclear energy, and about direct capture and point capture technology.

However, as always with a book of this much influence, he doesn’t always hit the mark. “Zero is what we need to aim for” he says in italics, on his first page. But he doesn’t hold by this implied trajectory. He claims that every nation must reach carbon-zero, and in doing so bypasses the many ways in which we can reduce our energy consumption and still make a difference. He refuses to propose “less” against “none”, a concept which many people feel is unrealistic. This also means dodging an examination into the ways in which capitalism and consumerism have themselves enabled the climate crisis; if we are simply transforming our current processes into clean and green versions of the original, we are not dealing with the significant systemic, human-centred reasons we find ourselves in danger in the first place. 

This leads to Gates’s biggest omission, in my opinion. It is his firm belief in the book that real change comes with the big movers — that is more important for the world superpowers to change their ways and invest in clean energy and tech than human behaviour changing on the whole.

When he refers to individual contributions, he explains how this must be measured by what we can do to influence such higher levels — what we consume and who we vote for. “This sort of personal action is important for the signals it sends to the marketplace”, he says.

In his final pages he tells us he is an “optimist” because he knows “what people can accomplish”, but this isn’t the point he labours throughout. He tells us to have conversations with each other, but in terms of our individual impact, he can even be relatively disparaging about the sorts of work the majority of readers can do — such as planting trees. 

Indeed, although reading about what government, environmental agencies, tech companies and the wealthiest of our society can and must do is interesting and relevant, it does little to encourage personal responsibility amongst the majority of us. By omitting this, he does avoid criticism that he is a rich, white man telling us how to behave. It also recognises the unlikely scenario that society will ever change so dramatically that meat will be entirely off the market, and that we will no longer drive, fly or use electricity. Yet by removing individual responsibility he does, in my opinion, lose the opportunity to fully leverage his audience. 

Gates predictably adds a chapter to the end of the book on the detrimental impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the economy, world health and poverty lines. But although he recognises such impact, he uses it as a platform from which to encourage global collaboration in the face of the climate crisis. If “governments, researchers, and pharmaceutical companies” could work together to successfully limit the COVID-19 crisis, they should be able to do the same with climate change, should they choose to take it as seriously. Ending the book on this note is a clever way to unite the urgency of the past year with the crisis we are about to face. “Our emissions,” he says, “are no longer a problem we’re willing to kick down the road”. There is a hunger for information and for change, and he is using it.

Yet in my opinion, Gates isn’t telling us what to do in “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”, but rather telling us why why we shouldn’t do certain things, and why they lead to climate change — before giving us some clear, fact-based solutions, made digestible through both his undeniably cohesive knowledge and his sporadically-injected reassurances and humorous anecdotes.

That being said, there are certainly parts that don’t align. His central precept — reaching net-zero by 2050 — is deemed unrealistic by some. Moreover, he can labour on the same points too many times, and can undoubtedly be a little self-congratulatory about his own charitable deeds. However, in being so open about both his ability to influence and his power to impact, he ultimately comes across as forthright but not arrogant, his own life falling into the background of the information he provides. The style of the book reflects its content; it is urgent, propelled by the same “momentum” he mentions on the final page of his book. Which, of course, is exactly what the climate disaster is. Urgent. 

Written By: Holly Hamilton

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