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

 Bill Gates made an enormous fortune at a young age, and ever since, he and his wife Melinda have given much of it away.  He has solid credentials as both a Cassandra and a doer of good deeds.  More than six years ago, he was warning the World of the dangers of a major pandemic and urging the world leaders to prepare.  He was ignored, and covid-19 has swept away millions of lives and trillions of dollars in economic output.  His foundation’s global health initiatives are distinguished by careful analysis and scientifically targeted actions.

He brings the same analytical mindset to the problem of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), namely by asking the fundamental questions: what is the threat, what can be done, what are the obstacles, and how much would it cost.  His book is not the place to find a careful analysis of the scientific basis and understanding of AGW or the evidence for it.  He accepts the testimony of the experts and looks squarely at the practical problems of effective action.

What his book does have is a careful look at all the significant sources of greenhouse gases and potential methods for eliminating them and solid quantitative estimates of how much those remedies cost, as well as the prospects for reducing those costs.  Far too many green advocates have pie in the sky ideas that a few simple tricks will fix everything.  Gates is not like that.  He is a hardheaded business man who finds out what everything costs and how hard it will be.

A key idea of his book is that of The Green Premium.  The Green Premium is the percentage of increase in cost associated with going to a no emissions alternative, for example, driving an electric car, flying your jet using advanced no emissions biofuels, or making steel and concrete with no emissions technology.  Right now, many of these premiums are large, in many cases over 100%.  Others, like replacing your furnace and air conditioner with a heat pump can actually save you money in the long run.  Gates has many ideas for reducing Green Premiums, but the biggest key is research, especially the kind of longer term research that only rich country governments can afford.  Many other avenues of action exist, including taxation of carbon emissions.

Gates is not willing to settle for half measures.  He believes that nothing less than zero net emissions is acceptable.  In that regard he argues that focus on the long term is crucial.  Our main goals for 2030, he says, should be preparing to get to net zero by 2050.  Replacing current coal fired electrical generation with natural gas, for example, would bring short term benefit but long term delay, since those natural gas plants would be expected to keep running for more than three decades.

This book is packed with facts, figures and ideas.  His proposals are very ambitious but grounded in a deep appreciation of both challenges and opportunities.  I have read a lot on climate change and proposed fixes, but nothing else that approaches this book in proposing realistic answers.

If you read this book, I predict that you will learn a lot more about what can be done about climate change.  You may even come to understand why Bill Gates has a lot more money than you do.

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