Entrepreneur

In ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,’ Bill Gates charts a difficult course that might just be doable


Bill Gates authored “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” and spoke to GeekWire about the book. (Image from a video of the GeekWire interview, Feb. 8, 2021)

In his new book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,” Bill Gates plays a role akin to a trusted doctor giving a prognosis and course of treatment for a patient confronting a potentially devastating disease. He’s hopeful we can beat this thing, but can’t make any promises — except that it’s going to be the fight of our lives and require major scientific breakthroughs along the way.

Hardback cover of Gates’ climate book.

Of course, in this case, the patient isn’t an individual but rather life on Earth, and the ailment is a planet at risk of continued warming to the point at which the world as we know it unravels.

The cure: we humans need to cut our emissions of greenhouse gases from its current 51 billion tons annually to zero.

“It’ll be tougher than anything humanity’s ever done, and only by staying constant in working on this over the next 30 years do we have a chance to do it,” said Gates in a recent interview with GeekWire.

“Having some people who think it’s easy will be an impediment. Having people who think that it’s not important will be an impediment,” Gates said. “And you know innovation is so unpredictable that we have to pursue many paths … so that our chance of succeeding in each of the areas of emissions is very, very high.”

From tech to health to climate change

Bill Gates’ history as an author says as much about the world’s priorities as it does his own phases of life. In his first book, “The Road Ahead” — released in 1995 and quickly updated to reflect the implications of the Internet — Gates described the impact that personal computers and digital technology would have on our lives. His second, “Business @ the Speed of Thought: Using a Digital Nervous System,” was released in 1999.

The release Tuesday of “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,” his third book, follows a year in which Gates was in the public eye as much as ever, emerging as an outspoken advocate for science and global equity in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It also comes amid heightened scrutiny of the ultra-wealthy as symbols of the world’s inequalities, and as rampant conspiracy theories about Gates himself continue to swirl despite being repeatedly debunked. (The “information superhighway” foretold in his first book would carry plenty of misinformation, as well, it turns out.)

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In his new book, the multi-billionaire makes an effort to approach the climate crisis with humility, acknowledging his own outsized carbon footprint and describing his efforts to mitigate that damage, including paying for green jet fuel and buying offsets from a company capturing carbon from the air and disposing of it.

“I am aware that I’m an imperfect messenger on climate change,” Gates writes. “The world is not exactly lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do, or who think technology can fix any problem.”

Gates’ deep dive into climate issues marks an ambitious third chapter in his life. The Microsoft co-founder built a company synonymous with computing, that remains one of the world’s most valuable corporations. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private charitable foundation, has granted more than $54 billion, focusing on global health and education. Gates has been a leader in encouraging other wealthy people and families to give away the majority of their wealth away during their lifetimes.

He made clear in our interview that his focus remains on global health, but that he’s also investing more time and money on climate change, motivated in large part by low-income countries’ need for clean energy and the reality that they will suffer the worst effects of a warmer planet.

Technology alone isn’t enough

Over the course of twelve chapters, Gates in his new book explains global warming basics; describes the five main categories of emissions and how they can be reduced; lays out the role of regulations for curbing carbon; covers ways of adapting to a warmer world; gives an overarching plan for cutting emissions, and ends with steps that individuals can take to prevent the crisis (spoiler: the most important one is political action).

“We cannot make the progress we need in climate without it being a broad discussion in most households in the country,” he said in the interview. “So you’ve got to get lots of other people involved.”

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As one would expect, the climate book is packed with data, but the tone is chummy and there are moments of self-deprecation. The numbers are presented in context to help readers understand the relative impacts of different greenhouse gas sources and the potential for different fixes to reign them in.

Gates tempers his well-known tech optimism, which has generated past criticism for some of his foundation’s efforts to boost farming in Africa and improve U.S. education. In a 2010 TED Talk, he spoke at length about new innovation and climate change, giving brief mention to the role of policy.

TerraPower tests
A technician places a fuel pin bundle into TerraPower’s test apparatus. TerraPower, which Gates founded in 2008, is working on next generation nuclear power. (TerraPower Photo)

In his book, Gates has adopted a more balanced approach. He stresses the essential roles played by innovation, policy and regulations, and robust marketplaces in driving the creation and deployment of carbon-free technologies. Gates acknowledged that his thinking has evolved from his Microsoft days when he thought policy makers “would only keep us from doing our best work.”

His new perspective? “[W]hen it comes to massive undertakings — whether it’s building a national highway system, vaccinating the world’s children, or decarbonizing the global economy — we need the government to play a huge role in creating the right incentives and making sure the overall system will work for everyone,” Gates writes.

He echoed the thought in our conversation. “It’s really governments that need to take on climate change as a goal,” Gates said. “No one can do it without all the rich-world governments being part of it.”

Gates also emphasizes ramping up the deployment of existing clean technologies — wind and solar power, electric vehicles and heat pumps among them — as quickly as possible, as opposed to waiting for new solutions.

Before writing his book, Gates had been pursuing other climate efforts.

In 2015 he launched Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a $1 billion fund to support carbon-cutting startups. That initiative, which recently raised another $1 billion for investing, has evolved into Breakthrough Energy, an umbrella organization that spans six programs, including lobbying for clean tech policies, funding researchers and generating data to support clean energy decision making.

“It’s fantastic that we’re getting more people in. I was talking to a lot of philanthropists today about ways that they could give either through Breakthrough or off on their own,” Gates said in the interview. “I’m talking with Jeff Bezos. We’re gonna do some things together. He’ll obviously do a ton of stuff that’s on his own, which I applaud.”

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Next-gen nukes and plant-based meat

Outside of Breakthrough Energy, Gates has pursued climate solutions in areas that others may have taken a pass on for being controversial or riskier investments. He’s the founder of TerraPower, a Bellevue, Wash., company developing next generation nuclear reactors and energy storage capabilities; has backed Impossible Foods, a startup making plant-based meat; and his foundation is supporting programs that will help low-income countries adapt to climate change with resilient crops and livestock.

Impossible Food’s Impossible Burgers in a grocery store. (Impossible Foods Photo)

Gates helps readers understand the challenge of deploying climate solutions through the idea of “green premiums.” Using the premiums, he compares the price of carbon-emitting technologies such as gasoline, cement or coal with their carbon-neutral replacements. The idea is that the world needs to shrink the green premiums in order for people, companies and governments to purchase the clean alternatives.

It all adds up to a massively daunting and critically important undertaking.

“There are days where it feels like focusing on something that requires global cooperation, changing the regulations of industries that are very critical but most people just take for granted — things like electricity reliability, or steel or cement [manufacturing] — it can appear quite daunting,” he said in our interview. “So unless it’s a priority — and in the U.S. that means a priority for both political parties — then you can you can be very worried that we’re not going to achieve it.”

Yet Gates offers some words of hope in his book’s final chapter.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll make real progress on climate change — because the world is more committed to solving this problem than it has ever been… Even though the pandemic has wrecked the global economy, support for action on climate change is just as high as it was in 2019,” he writes. “Our emissions, it seems, are no longer a problem that we’re willing to kick down the road.”





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