“How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”: A fun read about a serious topic

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Image: Penguin Books

Bill Gates’s book on climate change issues and solutions is exceptionally clear and simply written. Gates has an easy conversational style that makes the book a fun read, and he is clear-eyed about the problem and the solutions. He also stays away from politics, which makes the book a refreshingly apolitical read, especially in these times. Often Gates’s interest as a hardcore nerd shows, for instance when he tours a geothermal energy plant on a family vacation. Gates is also modest; he recognizes well that the world might be skeptical to hear about climate change solutions from yet another billionaire who thinks technology can solve all our problems. The difference though is that that technology *can* contribute substantially to addressing climate change, and unlike almost any other rich person, Gates has shows that he has both the breadth of knowledge and – as shown by his vast philanthropy – the public commitment to tackle this huge challenge.

Gates starts by making the sheer scale of the problem clear: Firstly, there are 51 billion tons of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere every year, and we need to reduce that number to zero. The useful metaphor he provides is of a bathtub which is full. Even if we reduce the flow of water, the bathtub will overflow at some point. The only two solutions are to turn off the tap and to drain the water.
Secondly, the sheer number of sources that contribute to this number make it very challenging to foresee how we can solve the problem – almost every activity we undertake in our daily life, from brushing our teeth (the plastic in the brush released GHGs when manufactured) to eating (the food we eat releases GHGs when grown with fertilizer and transported). One corollary of this realization is that whenever we analyze a new technology for energy or climate change, we have to undertake a cradle-to-grave lifecycle analysis to gauge whether the tradeoff it provides is truly positive; in my view, a lot of people have this blind spot when they make exaggerated claims about solar or wind power for instance.
Thirdly, we are not working on a static target; the world’s population is not just growing but getting more and more energy-hungry, which means we have to work uphill against this increase in GHG production. These three problems might make us feel pessimistic or even hopeless, but as Gates says, there are many solutions in principle, and a few in practice that we can implement to address the problem.

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