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Photo: GettyImages/MB Photography; Book cover; Author photograph courtesy of Bill Gates.

> The Big Read

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

In his new book, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates provides a prescription for our carbon crisis that rests on renewable energy like hydro, solar, wind and, yes, even nuclear power / BY Alanna Mitchell / February 17th, 2021


It would be easy to scoff at the idea of Bill Gates, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, writing a book telling us how to save the world from its glut of carbon. I mean, here’s the guy who flew his private jet to Paris to brainstorm the carbon problem with world leaders at the climate conference in 2015. He lives in a house in Medina, Wash., so fantastically large and so fabulously kitted out that it’s been nicknamed Xanadu 2.0 after the hulking, stately, pleasure dome in the 1941 movie Citizen Kane. It has, we’re told, heated driveways and enough space in its multiple parking garages for 23 cars.

Not only that, but Gates, whose new book launched Feb. 16 with a virtual interview by The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, has co-authored two previous books giving us handy tips about how to manoeuvre in the digital world he helped create. Put that in your pipe and smoke it as you struggle to remember all your passwords while trying mightily to make this month’s mortgage payments in the shifting economy. There’s something about one of the world’s richest, luckiest, whitest guys endowing us with yet more wisdom that could be a little galling.

Gates even makes a few of these self-mocking points himself in the first few pages of How To Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need.

White book cove of How To Avoid a Climate Disaster, by Bill Gates. No images, fonts in bold caps with a gradient of deep blue to orange/red, creating a sense of urgency.

But the thing is, Gates has done the hard work of understanding carbon and he’s written a smart, critically important book at precisely the time it’s needed the most. And with the global lens that few others can peer through.

It’s not just that he’s studied with climate science superstars – although he has. They’ve explained that as we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, we’re putting ancient carbon from those fossils into today’s atmosphere, trapping heat against the Earth’s surface and forcing us into climate catastrophe.

It’s not just that he has parsed emerging technologies lurking in labs around the world that might be able to solve some of the problems – although he has. In fact, he’s invested in a slew of them, to the tune of more than US$1 billion, he tells us, including one for US$50 million that was a financial write-off. To my mind, he’s bought himself carbon purity with those sums, and then some. Among the technologies: reliable clean energy; low-emission production of cement, steel and meat; and technologies to suck carbon straight out of the air.

But the larger gift here is that Gates is able to visualize the carbon build-up as part of a system. And then, like any good software geek, he breaks down the problem into bite-sized pieces, solving first one and then the next, like writing a piece of code.

It’s the same way he and his foundation, which has spent the better part of US$55 billion since 1994 to combat such things as HIV/AIDS and education, tackled the problem of child deaths around the world. First he needed to assemble data on what was killing the kids. Turns out, pneumonia was a big factor. But pneumonia vaccines were too expensive for health officials in poor countries who didn’t know, in any case, how badly they were needed. So he showed health officials the numbers, got donors to pay for the vaccines and eventually funded a cheaper vaccine that’s now in broad use.

Carbon redemption can happen the same way, he reckons. First you grasp the facts. We’re putting 51 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year and that has to drop to zero by 2050 if we are to avoid the worst of global heating. That’s a goal more than 100 governments, including Canada’s, have agreed to in recent months, based on the best science. Then, you figure out the pieces of getting to zero, broken down by how the carbon is getting into the atmosphere: how we make electricity, how we make other stuff, how we grow things, how we get around and how we heat and cool our buildings. The breakthrough is to strip carbon from electricity by using renewable energies as hydro, solar, wind and (yes, Gates goes there) nuclear. Then you electrify as much of the economy as possible, going for long-term fixes instead of easy early wins.

It’s not all brave new technological advances and private investment, though. Gates, who famously fought an antitrust case brought against Microsoft by the U.S. government in the late 1990s, now says the carbon fix will need policy, regulation and public finance to make sure this new system works for the poor as well as the rich, the developing world as well as the developed.

I’m with him there. But there’s another facet of the solution I wish Gates had brought to light. Yes, there’s science, technology, policy, regulation, venture capital and public money. There’s fact and data. All of it is important. But there’s also art, and I think it may be the most important thing. Art can move hearts and spirits in ways that reason cannot. It can make a manifesto into a movement. That means artists need to be at the table along with everyone else. Here’s my bias: I wrote and perform (in non-pandemic times) a non-fiction play, Sea Sick, about the carbon crisis and how it affects the global ocean.

I’ve stood on famous stages across the world and felt people in the audience move from despair and paralysis to hope and forgiveness and then to wild creativity. I’ve held audience members in my embrace after the shows as they sobbed uncontrollably, and then watched as they squared their shoulders, wiped their tears away and moved back into the world to dream a heroic new narrative into being. It’s the one where, armed with all this knowledge and money and technology, we triumph.

How To Avoid A Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need by Bill Gates was published Feb. 16, 2021 by Alfred A. Knopf.

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