How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need

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Release Date: 
February 16, 2021
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“How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is a primer for every citizen and a checklist for specialists to make sure they have the big picture.”                                                    

In the 18th century, British philosopher and economist Thomas Malthus predicted that global population growth would exceed food production. In the 1970s computer simulations by MIT and other scholars for the Club of Rome forecast severe ”limits to growth” as humans use up the earth’s resources. These forecasts proved simplistic and too pessimistic.  

In the 2020s, however, the co-founder of Microsoft joins others who fear that emissions of carbons will soon make the earth unlivable. His book is not simplistic guardedly optimistic. Unlike Malthus and the Club of Rome analysts, Bill Gates assumes that science and technology can alter negative trends and make for a more livable planet.

This clear and reader-friendly “how-to” book argues that it is important and do-able for the world to live with zero emissions by 2050. Gates is acutely aware of the difficulties in reaching this goal. To do so by 2030 is not feasible, he says. To try and do so could put us on the wrong track, for example, by replacing coal and oil power plants with gas power—also an emitter of greenhouse gases.

The guiding principle for Gates is to increase both the supply of and demand for cleaner technologies. This requires policies that spur both innovation and reward. The innovations needed include geothermal energy, pumped hydro, and drought/flood-tolerant crops. Gates urges a five-fold increase in outlays for energy research and development. Worldwide, government funding for clean energy R&D is now just $22 billion per year—less than what Americans spend on gasoline every month. The U.S. National Institutes of Health spends $37 billion a year while the United States invests only $7 billion per year on energy research.

The real value in government leadership in R&D is that it can take chances on bold ideas that might fail or not pay off quickly. The Human Genome Project, led by two government agencies in tandem with five other countries, took 13 years and billions of dollars, but has pointed the way for treating many genetic ailments. Every dollar invested in the HGP has generated $141 for the U.S. economy.

Researchers need to know that their funding will be for the long haul. Funding should not be subject to political whims or vagaries of the stock market.

Governments as well as big companies can help energy startups make it past early problems because they are massive consumers. If they prioritize buying green, this helps bring products to market by creating certainty and reducing costs. This approach helped the internet in its early days. There was public R&D funding but also a committed buyer—the U.S. government.

Governments can ease the financial burdens of the Green Premium—the extra costs sometimes incurred by going green. Public and private enterprise must work together on these and other issues. Developed nations must reduce the premium so that developing nations can afford to go green.

Governments can establish the infrastructure needed to get green products to market, for example, transmission lines for wind and solar, charging stations for electric vehicles, to pipelines for captured carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

Once clean energy has been developed, how do we scale it up so it offers a practical solution for large needs? This, too, is do-able. Put a price on carbon. Establish standards for clean electricity, fuel, and products such as cement and plastics.

To accomplish all this requires action at every level of government. For example, local authorities can regulate how buildings are constructed and what kinds of energy they use. State governments can improve roads and bridges. National governments must provide financial incentives and rules governing pollution. The White House can resume U.S. adherence to international climate accords and encourage others to do so.

The final chapter addresses what each person can do. Positive steps range from replacing incandescent lightbulbs with LEDs, to joining a green pricing program with the electric utility, to running for office. If your company uses a lot of paper, make sure it is recycled.

Gates hopes that people can unite behind effective solutions to climate change regardless their political orientation. “Whether you’re a believer in the private sector, or government intervention, or activism, or some combination, there’s a practical idea you can get behind.” Gates urges us to devote more effort to what we believe in than opposing what we oppose.  

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster covers nearly every facet of the problem. The book synthesizes the knowledge of experts in dozens of relevant sciences. Gates presents the problems and potential solutions as complex systems. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is a primer for every citizen and a checklist for specialists to make sure they have the big picture.