Book Review: ‘How to Avoid a Climate Change Disaster,’ by Bill Gates

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As London’s Carbon Tracker Initiative explained last year, building new sun- and wind-power facilities is already, or soon will be, cheaper even than operating existing coal-fired power. Most people, Gates included, have not caught on yet to just how fast this engineering miracle is happening.

So why aren’t we moving much faster than we are? That’s because of politics, and this is where Gates really wears blinders. “I think more like an engineer than a political scientist,” he says proudly — but that means he can write an entire book about the “climate disaster” without discussing the role that the fossil fuel industry played, and continues to play, in preventing action.

We now know from great investigative reporting that the oil companies knew everything about climate change back in the 1980s, and that they systematically built an edifice of disinformation and denial to keep us in the dark. That’s why we’ve wasted almost three decades of scientific warning. “I don’t have a solution to the politics of climate change,” Gates writes, but in fact he does: He founded, and his foundation is a shareholder in, a company that has donated money to exactly the politicians who are in the pocket of big oil. A Bloomberg analysis last fall found that Microsoft had given only a third of its contributions to “climate-friendly” politicians. Emily Atkin, in a December issue of her climate newsletter Heated, pointed out that Microsoft had joined 42 other corporations in a letter to President-elect Biden calling on him to enact “ambitious” climate policies — and then donated to David Perdue for his Georgia Senate runoff (other signatories to the letter also gave to Kelly Loeffler). Had they won and the G.O.P. retained control of the Senate, the chances for those ambitious climate policies would have been nil.

Gates mentions in passing at one point that he chose to divest his fortune from fossil fuel companies, but only because “I don’t want to profit if their stock prices go up because we don’t develop zero-carbon alternatives.” He scoffed at the idea that activists (who otherwise go mostly unmentioned in this book) thought that “divesting alone” would “transform the world’s energy system.” But of course those activists, myself included, thought no such thing. They understood that weakening the fossil fuel industry was simply one key part of the job of rapid decarbonization, just like engineering. That is, the activists were thinking multidimensionally, which Gates is so far not.

Maybe that’s a weakness that comes with wealth; it’s obviously easy enough to slag Gates for flying in a private jet (and his publisher must have winced a little when he chose the winter of his book launch to join a bidding war for ownership of the world’s largest private jet servicing company). But I think that’s missing the point: The exhaust plume from his airplane won’t make or break the planet’s temperature, but given his resources and political reach, the quality of his analysis just might.

Power comes in many forms, from geothermal and nuclear to congressional and economic; it’s wonderful that Gates has decided to work hard on climate questions, but to be truly helpful he needs to resolve to be a better geek — he needs to really get down on his hands and knees and examine how that power works in all its messiness. Politics very much included.

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