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Bill Gates warms to climate change

Book review of How To Avoid A Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need

Bill Gates | Climate Change | BOOK REVIEW

Bill McKibben | NYT 

Book cover
Book cover of How To Avoid A Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need

First things first — much respect to for his membership in the select club of ultra-billionaires not actively attempting to flee Earth and colonise Mars. His affection for his home planet and the people on it shines through clearly in this new book, as does his proud and usually endearing geekiness.

And this new volume could not be more timely. As everyone can attest who watched the blazes of Australia and California, or the hurricanes with odd Greek names crashing through the gulf, we are in dire need of solutions to the greatest crisis our species has yet faced.

It is a disappointment, then, to report that this book turns out to be a little underwhelming. Mr Gates — who must have easy access to the greatest experts the world can provide — is surprisingly behind the curve on the geeky parts, and he’s worse at interpreting the deeper and more critical aspects of the global warming dilemma. Since he confesses that he missed the climate challenge until 2006, when he met with some scientists almost two decades after the problem emerged, it’s perhaps not surprising that he’s still catching up. And yet, his miscalculations are important, because they are widely shared.

Let’s do the numbers first. Mr Gates correctly understands the basic challenge, which is to “get to zero” as soon as we can. “Humans need to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere,” he writes, which is as useful a sentence as the English language admits. And he understands that the key to doing this is to electrify as much human activity as possible: From powering our computers to turning the wheels of our cars and buses to producing steel. But when it comes to generating that electricity, he worries that solar panels aren’t becoming more efficient fast enough: Unlike computer chips, for instance, there’s no “Moore’s law” that doubles their usefulness every two years.

But that’s not really the target here: In fact, as the analyst Ramez Naam pointed out last spring, the price of solar power has dropped astonishingly in the last decade. The price drop is 50 to 100 years ahead of what the International Energy Agency was forecasting in 2010, mostly because we’re getting better at building and installing solar panels. Every time we double the number of panels installed, the price drops another 30 to 40 per cent, and there’s plenty of runway left.

How To Avoid A Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need

Author: Bill Gates

Publisher: Alfred A Knopf

Price: $26.95; Pages: 256

These staggering numbers are why Mr Gates’s current-day snapshots of the “Green Premiums” you need to pay for clean energy don’t mean as much as he thinks they do: Especially since storage batteries are now dropping in price on a similar curve, it’s clear that the imperative is to install as much solar (and wind power, which is on the same price trajectory) as fast as humanly possible, since if we don’t make huge progress in the next 10 years scientists have made clear we can kiss the targets we set in Paris goodbye.

One wishes Mr Gates had talked, for instance, with Stanford’s Mark Jacobson, whose team has calculated how almost every country on earth could go to 80 per cent renewable energy by 2030. If he had, he might have understood more clearly that the things that really interest him — advanced nuclear power, for instance, where he describes his considerable investments — are more about mopping up: the key work will be done (or not) over the next decade, and it will be done by sun and wind.

As London’s Carbon Tracker Initiative explained last year, building new sun- and wind-power facilities is already, or soon will be, cheaper even than operating existing coal-fired power. Most people, Mr Gates included, have not caught on yet to just how fast this engineering miracle is happening.

So why aren’t we moving much faster than we are? That’s because of politics, and this is where Mr Gates really wears blinders.

We now know from great investigative reporting that the oil companies knew everything about back in the 1980s, and that they built an edifice of disinformation and denial. That’s why we’ve wasted almost three decades of scientific warning. “I don’t have a solution to the politics of climate change,” Mr Gates writes, but in fact he does: His foundation is a shareholder in a company that has donated money to politicians who are in the pocket of big oil. A Bloomberg analysis last fall found that Microsoft had given only a third of its contributions to “climate-friendly” politicians.

Mr Gates mentions in passing that he chose to divest his fortune from fossil fuel companies, but only because “I don’t want to profit if their stock prices go up because we don’t develop zero-carbon alternatives.” He scoffed at the idea that activists thought that “divesting alone” would “transform the world’s energy system.” But of course those activists, myself included, thought no such thing. They understood that weakening the fossil fuel industry was one key part of the job of rapid decarbonisation. That is, the activists were thinking multi-dimension­ally, which Mr Gates is so far not.

Maybe that’s a weakness that comes with wealth; it’s obviously easy enough to slag Gates for flying in a private jet. But I think that’s missing the point: The exhaust plume from his aeroplane won’t make or break the planet’s temperature, but given his resources and political reach, the quality of his analysis just might.

©2021 The New York Times News Service

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First Published: Sun, February 21 2021. 22:36 IST