Book Name : How to avoid a climate disaster
Author: Bill Gates
Genre : Non-Fiction/ Climate
Book Post : 33
What is it about? : We all know the threat of climate change. Unless we do something about it the very existence of humanity is at stake. In this book Bill Gates explains the scale of the problem and what we should be doing to avoid it. Yes, he is not an expert on this topic and has taken the help of actual experts while shaping his plan. If you think why Bill Gates, who is still mostly widely known for Microsoft, is trying to save the world then the answer can be found in a line from the Marvel movie ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’. When someone asks the protagonist why he wants to save the world, his answer is a matter of fact statement ‘because I am one of the idiots who lives in it’. But more seriously Bill Gates arrived at this problem quite logically from his immense work in eradicating communicable diseases and energy poverty.
How I came to read it : Since my transition into the field of energy efficiency and climate action I am trying to shore up my knowledge about the intensity of the problems we are facing and what can we do about it. This book is one of a series of books I have read and will continue reading.
Did I like it?: Yes, this is a good book for an introduction into the problem of climate change. It is more suited for people who have no background in the field and are looking for some info into what’s the whole deal about. Having said that people with a background in climate change might find the neat arrangement of ideas and pathways interesting, as I did, not to mention learning about some new concepts.
The book is neatly divided into different sections the first which is just breaking down the problem. I really liked the opening of the book which simply says “There are two numbers you need to know about climate change. The first is 51 billion. The other is zero.” Very direct. To the point. We need to go from 51 billion to 0. These numbers are tons of greenhouse gases we release into the atmosphere every year. He then goes onto answer why need to get to zero in the next chapter. In the subsequent chapters he lists out the different areas we need to focus on and what we need to do in each area to be able to move towards zero emissions. He classifies the different areas in the following ways :
- How we plug in : This section mostly deals with the equipment we generally plug into the sockets in our homes & businesses and where that electricity comes from.
- How we make things : This section deals with how we manufacture things. There is still a huge problem in heavy industries regarding how to reach extremely high temperatures without having to burn fossil fuels.
- How we grow things : This section is about Agriculture and land usage.
- How we get around : This section talks about transportation. This area is where there is a lot of visibility from the general public.
- How we keep cool and stay warm : This section talks about heating and cooling our buildings. Since I am working in this area I had a special interest in this section.
Bill Gates gets a lot of criticism from some people saying that some of his solutions are simply not feasible. Some of the strongest criticism I have seen is from Michael Barnard, who is a Board Observer and Strategist for Agora Energy Technologies and among many other roles, the chief strategist at TFIE strategy. I happened to have a brief chat with Michael at an event in Vancouver about Nuclear Power. This was while I was pursuing my Masters from University of British Columbia in 2019. At that time I had no idea about him and his work. Michael has written quite a few articles about what Bill Gates gets wrong in his climate solutions. You can read a few here and here. And this one was written as far back as 2016 by another author. The criticism is mostly centered around technologies like Carbon capture and Solar geoengineering to name a couple. Bill Gates is mostly inspired from the Manitoba based academic Vaclav Smil who is considered a kind of a legend in the energy field. I have read a couple of his books and they are very detailed and pretty dense. Michael disagrees with some of Smil’s assertations and it makes for some fascinating reading. Link to an article here.
I would say, while reading the book keep that criticism aside and do not put too much attention on the technologies mentioned in the book. We all are working towards one common goal and there always will be disagreements in how we get there. Understand the overall point that Bill Gates in making in this point. Another good point I noticed is that throughout the book Bill Gates keeps mentioning the third world countries and how important it is for them to keep generating cheap power and for everyone to get out of poverty unlike many books on the subject which quite conveniently forget who made the most contributions to the emissions we see today and who is actually bearing the brunt of its impact.
Overall, irrespective of the criticism, this is a good book for understanding what we are dealing with and what needs to be done to solve the single most difficult collective action problem mankind has faced.
Best thing I learned from this book : In any conversation about emissions reductions or new green technologies or anything related always keep these 5 questions in mind:
- How much of the 51 Billion tons are we talking about?
- What’s your plan for cement?
- How much power are we talking about?
- How much space do you need?
- How much is this going to cost?