Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft and the world's fourth-wealthiest person, has written a new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster (Knopf, 2021) in which he cites the looming catastrophe of radical global climate change and sets out an incredibly ambitious goal that he argues is the only possible path for our species' survival: achieving zero.
Zero carbon emissions, that is. Gates stresses that the battle against greenhouse gas accumulation must be total in order to be effective; any carbon emissions, compounded with the damage that's already been done to the environment, would be lethal. "If nothing else changes, the world will keep producing greenhouse gases", Gates writes. "Climate change will keep getting worse, and the impact on humans will in all likelihood be catastrophic".
Anyone who's watched the news in the last few years knows something about this catastrophe: freakish weather patterns, monster storms, unendurable heat and drought, dwindling resources of arable land and potable water, massive migrations, rising violence.
To fight that future, Gates fills the pages of his book with proposals and their pragmatic details, accentuated with talk of cooperatives, market incentives, and venture capital that starts out confusing and only grows more so as the narrative progresses. Ultimately, however, Gates urges that shifting consumption patterns to renewable sources of energy is key, and that means two things: producing those alternate energy sources to scale and making them affordable.
"I'm an optimist because I know what technology can accomplish and because I know what people can accomplish", Gates writes. "We can keep the climate bearable for everyone, help hundreds of millions of poor people make the most of their lives, and preserve the planet for generations to come".
Gates is encouraged by the response when he brings these proposals to two dozen of his very wealthy friends. "To avoid the potholes that the venture capitalists had run into", he reports, "I committed to help build a focused team of experts who would vet the companies and help them navigate the complexities of the energy industry".
At the moment of this writing, Bill Gates's personal net worth is roughly USD 110 billion. That figure is deceptive; not only does it increase by roughly USD 11 million every day, but it fails to take into account a wide variety of partnerships and other equities. In an emergency, it's entirely likely that Bill Gates could marshal (or borrow) ten times that amount. The large amounts that the Gates Foundation donates to various charities and causes amounts to a tiny fraction of Gates's own net worth.
Here's the point: according to Bill Gates, global climate change is an emergency—in fact, the gravest emergency humanity has ever faced, a potential species-killer. In the pages of his new book, he goes on at some length about how the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic is a relatively minor threat compared to the world's rapidly-changing climate.
In the face of such a threat, Bill Gates—just himself, alone—could single-handedly fund the most effective social and technological measures to combat that threat and likely get the entire civilised world at or very close to zero carbon emissions.
He isn't doing that. Instead, despite the fact that he's not an expert in any of the fields involved, he's written a book detailing his thoughts. And despite the fact that he's talking about a species-killing threat and believes he has answers that can save mankind, he's not posting that book online for free to anybody with an Internet connection. He's not even mandating that the for-sale book be available only in e-book.
Instead, unless the book was published using synthetic or recycled paper, he chose an incredibly carbon-wasteful option. The only possible conclusion to draw from all this is simple: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is at least as much an exercise in irony as it is a gesture of philanthropy.
Steve Donoghue is a book critic whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, and The National.