How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need | Bill Gates
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#1 NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER • In this urgent, authoritative book, Bill Gates sets out a wide-ranging, practical—and accessible—plan for how the world can get to zero greenhouse gas emissions in time to avoid a climate catastrophe.
Bill Gates has spent a decade investigating the causes and effects of climate change. With the help of experts in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, political science, and finance, he has focused on what must be done in order to stop the planet's slide to certain environmental disaster. In this book, he not only explains why we need to work toward net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases, but also details what we need to do to achieve this profoundly important goal.
He gives us a clear-eyed description of the challenges we face. Drawing on his understanding of innovation and what it takes to get new ideas into the market, he describes the areas in which technology is already helping to reduce emissions, where and how the current technology can be made to function more effectively, where breakthrough technologies are needed, and who is working on these essential innovations. Finally, he lays out a concrete, practical plan for achieving the goal of zero emissions—suggesting not only policies that governments should adopt, but what we as individuals can do to keep our government, our employers, and ourselves accountable in this crucial enterprise.
As Bill Gates makes clear, achieving zero emissions will not be simple or easy to do, but if we follow the plan he sets out here, it is a goal firmly within our reach.
Sad news: Electric cars won’t save the world. But Bill Gates has some pretty good ideas as to what will. Logical, compelling, and ultimately optimistic, this book is a rousing call from an innovator who believes we have the right stuff to change our fate, and his fresh way of thinking is desperately needed to clear away the overheated emotions this subject ignites. –Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review
“The most comprehensible explanation for what’s driving our warming planet; how to measure the impact of the myriad contributions to this staggering and seemingly incalculable problem; and ultimately how to go about finding more effective approaches to each of them. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a how-to guide for addressing the climate crisis.” —Clinton Leaf, Fortune
“How to Avoid a Climate Disaster presents ideas with the methodical approach of a college textbook . . . Remarkably, given the state of the world, it is an optimistic, can-do sort of book, chock-full of solutions.” —Christina Binkley, The Wall Street Journal Magazine
“The most refreshing aspect of this book is its bracing mix of cold-eyed realism and number-crunched optimism . . . Ultimately his book is a primer on how to reorganise the global economy so that innovation focuses on the world’s gravest problems. It is a powerful reminder that if mankind is to get serious about tackling them, it must do more to harness the one natural resource available in infinite quantity—human ingenuity.” —The Economist
“The author’s enthusiasm and curiosity about the way things work is infectious. He walks us through not just the basic science of global warming, but all the ways that our modern lives contribute to it . . . Gates seems energized by the sheer size and complexity of the challenge. That’s one of the best things about the book—the can-do optimism and conviction that science in partnership with industry are up to the task.” —Richard Schiffman, The Christian Science Monitor
“With the help of experts in fields such as physics, engineering, chemistry, finance and politics, the technologist and philanthropist offers a practical and accessible plan for getting the world to zero greenhouse gas emissions and averting climate catastrophe.” —Barbara VanDenburgh, USA Today
“How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is clear, concise on a colossal subject, and intelligently holistic in its approach to the problem. Gates may not be the perfect messenger, but he has written a fine primer on how to get ourselves out of this mess.” —Adama Vaughan, New Scientist
“Bill Gates has a plan to save the world . . . While acknowledging that the challenge is daunting, and how we make things, grow things, move around, keep cool and stay warm will all need to fundamentally change, Gates argues that wholesale transformation is possible while maintaining lifestyles in high income countries and continuing to lift billions out of poverty.” —Greg Williams, Wired
“His expertise . . . is apparent in the book’s lucid explanations of the scientific aspects of climate change. The solutions he outlines are pragmatic and grounded in forward-thinking economic reasoning. Although he does not avoid the hard truths we must face as our climate changes, Gates remains optimistic and believes that we have the ability to avoid a total climate disaster.” —Miriam R. Aczel, Science
“Concise, straightforward . . . Gates has crafted a calm, reasoned, well-sourced explanation of the greatest challenge of our time and what we must change to avoid cooking our planet.” —Jeff Rowe, Associated Press
“A persuasive, optimistic strategy for reducing greenhouse emissions to zero by midcentury . . . Though Gates doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the daunting challenges ahead, his narrative contains enough confidence—and hard science and economics—to convince many readers that his blueprint is one of the most viable yet . . . supremely authoritative and accessible.” ––Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Those looking for an accessible review of how global warming can be countered will find this a handy—and maybe even hope-inspiring—guide.” ––Publishers Weekly
“Gates has put his considerable wealth behind global health, educational, and economic initiatives and now turns his laser-like attention to this most existential of issues . . . He provides illuminating contexts for [his] perspectives and offers a treatise that is imperative, approachable, and useful.” ––Booklist
About the Author
Bill Gates is cochair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and founder of Breakthrough Energy. Bill founded Microsoft in 1975 with Paul Allen and led the company to become the worldwide leader in business and personal software and services. In 2008, Bill transitioned to focus full-time on his foundation’s work to expand opportunity to the world’s most disadvantaged people. As cochair, he leads the foundation’s development of strategies and sets the overall direction of the organization. Through his private office, Gates Ventures, he pursues his work on innovation in clean energy, Alzheimer’s disease and other healthcare issues, interdisciplinary education, and technology. At Breakthrough Energy, he’s putting his experience as an innovator and problem-solver to work to address climate change by supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs, big thinkers, and clean technologies. Bill uses his experience partnering with global leaders across sectors to help drive the policy, market, and technological changes required for a clean-energy transition. In 2010, Bill, Melinda French Gates, and Warren Buffett founded the Giving Pledge, an effort to encourage the wealthiest families and individuals to publicly commit more than half of their wealth to philanthropic causes and charitable organizations during their lifetime or in their will.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
There are two numbers you need to know about climate change. The first is 51 billion. The other is zero.
Fifty-one billion is how many tons of greenhouse gases the world typically adds to the atmosphere every year. Although the figure may go up or down a bit from year to year, it’s generally increasing. This is where we are today.
Zero is what we need to aim for. To stop the warming and avoid the worst effects of climate change—and these effects will be very bad—humans need to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
This sounds difficult, because it will be. The world has never done anything quite this big. Every country will need to change its ways. Virtually every activity in modern life—growing things, making things, getting around from place to place—involves releasing greenhouse gases, and as time goes on, more people will be living this modern lifestyle. That’s good, because it means their lives are getting better. Yet if nothing else changes, the world will keep producing greenhouse gases, climate change will keep getting worse, and the impact on humans will in all likelihood be catastrophic.
But “if nothing else changes” is a big If. I believe that things can change. We already have some of the tools we need, and as for those we don’t yet have, everything I’ve learned about climate and technology makes me optimistic that we can invent them, deploy them, and, if we act fast enough, avoid a climate catastrophe.
This book is about what it will take and why I think we can do it.
Two decades ago, I would never have predicted that one day I would be talking in public about climate change, much less writing a book about it. My background is in software, not climate science, and these days my full-time job is working with my wife, Melinda, at the Gates Foundation, where we are super-focused on global health, development, and U.S. education.
I came to focus on climate change in an indirect way—through the problem of energy poverty.
In the early 2000s, when our foundation was just starting out, I began traveling to low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia so I could learn more about child mortality, HIV, and the other big problems we were working on. But my mind was not always on diseases. I would fly into major cities, look out the window, and think, Why is it so dark out there? Where are all the lights I’d see if this were New York, Paris, or Beijing?
In Lagos, Nigeria, I traveled down unlit streets where people were huddling around fires they had built in old oil barrels. In remote villages, Melinda and I met women and girls who spent hours every day collecting firewood so they could cook over an open flame in their homes. We met kids who did their homework by candlelight because their homes didn’t have electricity.
I learned that about a billion people didn’t have reliable access to electricity and that half of them lived in sub-Saharan Africa. (The picture has improved a bit since then; today roughly 860 million people don’t have electricity.) I thought about our foundation’s motto—“Everyone deserves the chance to live a healthy and productive life”—and how it’s hard to stay healthy if your local medical clinic can’t keep vaccines cold because the refrigerators don’t work. It’s hard to be productive if you don’t have lights to read by. And it’s impossible to build an economy where everyone has job opportunities if you don’t have massive amounts of reliable, affordable electricity for offices, factories, and call centers.
As all this information sank in, I began to think about how the world could make energy affordable and reliable for the poor. It didn’t make sense for our foundation to take on this huge problem— we needed it to stay focused on its core mission—but I started kicking around ideas with some inventor friends of mine. I read more deeply on the subject, including several eye-opening books by the scientist and historian Vaclav Smil, who helped me understand just how critical energy is to modern civilization.
At the time, I didn’t understand that we needed to get to zero. The rich countries that are responsible for most emissions were starting to pay attention to climate change, and I thought that would be enough. My contribution, I believed, would be to advocate for making reliable energy affordable for the poor.
For one thing, they have the most to gain from it. Cheaper energy would mean not only lights at night but also cheaper fertilizer for their fields and cement for their homes. And when it comes to climate change, the poor have the most to lose. The majority of them are farmers who already live on the edge and can’t withstand more droughts and floods.
Things changed for me in late 2006 when I met with two former Microsoft colleagues who were starting nonprofits focused on energy and climate. They brought along two climate scientists who were well versed in the issues, and the four of them showed me the data connecting greenhouse gas emissions to climate change.
I knew that greenhouse gases were making the temperature rise, but I had assumed that there were cyclical variations or other fac- tors that would naturally prevent a true climate disaster. And it was hard to accept that as long as humans kept emitting any amount of greenhouse gases, temperatures would keep going up.
I went back to the group several times with follow-up questions. Eventually it sank in. The world needs to provide more energy so the poorest can thrive, but we need to provide that energy without releasing any more greenhouse gases.
Now the problem seemed even harder. It wasn’t enough to deliver cheap, reliable energy for the poor. It also had to be clean.
I kept learning everything I could about climate change. I met with experts on climate and energy, agriculture, oceans, sea levels, glaciers, power lines, and more. I read the reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN panel that establishes the scientific consensus on this subject. I watched Earth’s Changing Climate, a series of fantastic video lectures by Professor Richard Wolfson available through the Great Courses series. I read Weather for Dummies, still one of the best books on weather that I’ve found.
One thing that became clear to me was that our current sources of renewable energy—wind and solar, mostly—could make a big dent in the problem, but we weren’t doing enough to deploy them.
It also became clear why, on their own, they aren’t enough to get us all the way to zero. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, and we don’t have affordable batteries that can store city-sized amounts of energy for long enough. Besides, making electricity accounts for only 27 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Even if we had a huge breakthrough in batteries, we would still need to get rid of the other 73 percent.
Within a few years, I had become convinced of three things:
1. To avoid a climate disaster, we have to get to zero.
2. We need to deploy the tools we already have, like solar and wind, faster and smarter.
3. And we need to create and roll out breakthrough technologies that can take us the rest of the way.
The case for zero was, and is, rock solid. Unless we stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the temperature will keep going up. Here’s an analogy that’s especially helpful: The climate is like a bathtub that’s slowly filling up with water. Even if we slow the flow of water to a trickle, the tub will eventually fill up and water will come spilling out onto the floor. That’s the disaster we have to prevent. Setting a goal to only reduce our emissions—but not eliminate them—won’t do it. The only sensible goal is zero
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