Climate change narratives tend towards doom, gloom and upheaval. Disaster is coming, and stopping it will require a fundamental reshaping of our lives, and perhaps even of the global capitalist system. That message has reached a critical mass in recent years. But as climate change has hit the mainstream agenda it has spurred some new ways of thinking from those who accept that something must be done, but who are hoping it doesn’t require a revolution. Now Bill Gates is here to tell you that you can have it all; consumption, growth and manageable sea levels. He’s just not exactly sure how yet.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster starts from Gates’s overarching belief that things are going pretty well for humankind, all told, so long as we iron out some wrinkles. In Gates’s world, climate change is definitely one of the bigger wrinkles, but still a surmountable challenge that can be met with the right policy and, most importantly, some snazzy tech fixes.
It’s easy to get exercised by the impending catastrophe of climate change. One paper released in 2019 was so doom-mongering it reportedly drove people into therapy. You’re unlikely to be similarly agitated by Gates’s book, unless you feel heart palpitations at the thought of cutting-edge battery technology and smart devices (some people, I know, do). He runs through the solutions we already have in our grasp – mainly the switch to renewables and electric vehicles. There’s little in this that will surprise anyone with a vague awareness of climate policy, and quite a lot missing. His overview of food production ignores developments in regenerative agriculture, indoor farming, and our understanding of the importance of farmland biodiversity.
Throughout the book, the narrow focus on fixing greenhouse gas emissions comes at the expense of concern over the impact on our rapidly depleting ecosystems, despite a growing recognition that the fates of the two are intertwined. But Gates, who has worked for 20 years on projects to alleviate global poverty, is laser focused on human welfare. And having it all has to work for everyone, the developing world included. It’s not enough to work out how we feed the world on current diets in a sustainable way. We should expect the developing world to catch up with our consumption of meat and dairy, though one recent study suggests this would require six Earths.
Behaviour change is largely off the agenda here. We’re not going to substantially trim our meat consumption, drive less, or pay more for our energy, argues Gates, so there’s no point going down that route. Not only that, but we’ll have to work out how to accommodate billions more people doing the same. That leaves some big gaps to fill, for which Gates’s answer is largely technology that we don’t yet have. He is cautious here to distance himself from the idea that the climate optimists’ great white hope, direct air capture of carbon dioxide (in which he has heavily invested), is going to save us.
But he still leaves us hanging on how we’re going to meet some of the great challenges ahead of us. On chemical fertilisers, for instance, there’s no question poorer countries should be using more, though we have no way of capturing their greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite not having the answers, Gates is asking the right questions, which many of his fellow optimists tend to overlook. Two thirds of the global economy are committed to a net-zero plan, and policymakers are already involved in many of the conundrums that Gates lays out: how to ensure a steady power supply as you make the switch to renewable energy; how to incentive’s the use of electric vehicles; how to shift whole cities off the gas grid.
But Gates is concerned with how to ensure developing countries, many of which will be worse hit by the impact of climate change created by richer nations, do not get left behind. That’s not just a moral question; without alternatives they will have no choice but to embed the same polluting behaviours as industrialised nations did. As with a pandemic, we will eventually come to realise we’re all in it together