How not to avoid a climate disaster

The Herald, February 2021

It’s difficult to take anything Bill Gates says about climate change seriously. Through his trust, the Microsoft co-founder owns $10 billion worth of shares in his friend Warren Buffet’s holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, which invests heavily in natural gas and other polluting utilities. According to Lund University professor Stefan Gossling, he is, along with other celebrities, responsible for ten thousand times more carbon emissions, annually, than the average person. In January, he tried to buy the world’s largest private jet operator, Signature. (Gates has previously described using a private jet as his chief “guilty pleasure.”) And yet, even if the Seattle-based billionaire didn’t have a vast carbon footprint – even if he was the greenest oligarch on earth – the ‘solutions’ to global warming outlined in his new book would still lack credibility.

How To Avoid A Climate Disaster tells us nothing we didn’t already know about environmental break-down. The opening chapters are packed with commonplace insights into the crisis. An average rise of two degrees Celsius in the earth’s surface temperature will decimate crop yields in developing countries. A hotter planet means more intense and protracted wildfires. By 2100, major urban centres like Miami will be underwater. Gates’s solution? Market-driven innovation. With the right combination of state and private sector support, companies can slash the (currently prohibitive) costs of renewable energy, thus reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and dragging the global economy across that all-important zero-carbon threshold.

The problem with this hyper-optimistic brand of green capitalism is that it simply doesn’t work. Scientists have been warning corporate elites about the consequences of unchecked oil, gas, and coal production since at least the late 1970s. Half a century later, global emissions are still going up and the planet is still heating at an apocalyptic rate. Gates believes we can complete the necessary shift away from extractive industries within the next thirty years, assuming investors are willing to embrace controversial initiatives like geo-engineering and nuclear power. The consensus among climate activists, on the other hand, is that humanity has less than a decade to ditch its addiction to carbon – and that market forces aren’t moving anywhere near fast enough to make that happen.

Gates is an incrementalist by the standards of the modern environmental movement, firmly lodged on the conservative wing of the green ideological spectrum. He all but disavows politics as a mechanism for tackling climate change. Leftwing demands for a Green New Deal are notably absent from his narrative and he makes no attempt to reckon with the vast, obstructive lobbying power of oil and gas executives. Instead, Gates places a huge amount of faith in the capacity of new technology to mitigate the effects of global warming and argues that business leaders should be free to channel the world’s “scientific IQ” into a dynamic, competitive campaign against rising emissions. Governments, he says, should regulate and incentivize innovators, not smother them. Where possible, politicians should simply “stay out of the way.”

How To Avoid A Climate Disaster is an odd book in a lot of ways. Gates is a pedestrian writer who uses technocratic language to convey conventional ideas with a billionaire’s confidence. His advice is doled out in list form, with separate sections explaining how consumers can “sign up for green pricing programs,”, employers can “connect with government-funded research,” and policy-makers can “change the rules so new technologies can compete.” Even taken collectively and applied in full, these recommendations wouldn’t help us avoid a climate disaster. They might help us delay one. But that’s not what Gates is selling. “I am aware that I’m an imperfect messenger on climate change,” the 65-year-old philanthropist concedes early on in the text. If only he had stopped there. 

This article is a review of How To Avoid A Climate Disaster by Bill Gates. Read the original piece here.

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