HOW TO AVOID A CLIMATE DISASTER? A BOOK REVIEW
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
Seldom do you come across a non-fiction book that is so easygoing and simple, and yet has such an astounding impact on the reader. This makes sense, however, as Mr. Gates has never been someone to indulge in the practice of using unnecessary scientific jargon. He is primarily, after all, a software engineer.
The book begins by laying out the basic science behind climate change by giving the analogy of a car parked in sunlight. Just like how the car traps the heat of the sun and heats itself up, the excess greenhouse gases trap excess heat from the sun in the atmosphere and heat the atmosphere up.
As Mr. Gates has emphasised it excessively, and as the numbers prove it with little uncertainty, we need to get to zero net emissions to avoid a climate disaster.
We have come to rely on fossil fuels for most of our activities, from generating energy and making things to traveling and producing food. Mr. Gates tries to drive home the point that, just like we are a carbon-based life form, our society is a carbon-based social structure. Most of the milestones we have achieved as a species, from food security to better healthcare, have been made possible by fossil fuels. Not only do we need products that are primarily made from fossil fuels, which encompasses almost everything, but we also need more of it in the future. As the global population grows and gets richer, they are going to need more food, more buildings to live in and more cars to travel in. It would be unrealistic, as well as unethical for us to deny the poor to take steps to improve their quality of life. So how do we solve the problem of climate change? How do we avoid a climate disaster?
Mr. Gates begins by showing us what percentage of total greenhouse emissions are made for different purposes like making electricity (27%), making materials like cement, steel, and plastic (31%), growing food (19%), and moving around (16%). Then, the reader is introduced to the concept of green premiums, that is the net cost difference if one were to replace fossil fuels with a clean energy source. For the activities for which a carbon-free method does not exist yet (there are many), the Green Premium is calculated as the cost of directly capturing the greenhouse gases released by the activity, during the process, or directly from the atmosphere (Direct Air Capture).
For each activity, the author calculates the current Green Premiums, and what innovations can bring these premiums down so that the technology is by and large affordable for everyone.
The sections for different activities make for an interesting read, not only as one gets to explore the different technological breakthroughs that may be on the way, but also because they trace the entire spectrum of our way of life.
Mr. Gates does not refrain from talking about a very controversial but powerful source of energy and leaves little ambiguity about his position on the debate about nuclear energy.
“Imagine if everyone had gotten together one day and said, “Hey, cars are killing people. They’re dangerous. Let’s stop driving and give up these automobiles. That would be ridiculous, of course.”
In his opinion, this is what the world seems to have done post the horrors of Chernobyl and Fukushima, with respect to nuclear energy. The argument bought up by most proponents of nuclear energy is that it kills the least number of people, and each unit of electricity generated is also presented. Innovation in Nuclear technology almost came to a halt in the 1980s and most reactors in place, presently, are working on outdated technology. Mr. Gates argues that every reasonable path to net-zero emissions requires one to adopt nuclear technology. There exists a technology that can make the reactions more efficient and stable, and the waste less toxic. The faith in nuclear technology should be restored among the people and politicians if we are to avoid a climate disaster.
In the concluding chapters of the book, Mr. Gates finally presents how we can avoid the impending disaster. Major emphasis is paid on government policies like increased research and development funding in the case of green tech, electrification, and the establishment of a carbon tax. All the major policy suggestions are, however, Euro-Centric in nature and as for the rest of the world, the author just says that the third world will adapt to newer technologies as innovations make them cheaper. This part of the argument has me unconvinced as to whether the process could happen at the pace envisaged simply by the means of adaptation.
The book provides a concrete analysis of the climate change problem, acquainting one with the science of climate change and the salience of the issue. Overall, it makes for a remarkably interesting, informative, and engaging read. However, one area where it fails to provide a solution, and which, in my opinion, is the piece of the puzzle that is the toughest to find, is how to get countries together to cooperate and solve the problem together; that is, how to get around the Politics of Climate Change. How does one get around the realist world order, primarily based on the pursuit of the “so-called” national interest? How does one convince countries like China to not build additional coal-fired power plants? But then, as Mr. Gates himself admits, he is, at the end of the day, an engineer, not a political scientist, and expecting him to offer a political solution to the gravest transnational crisis humanity faces would be expecting a bit too much.
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About the author: Aayush Maniktalia is a third-year student of international relations at O.P. Jindal Global University. He uses the pronouns he/him and has an avid interest in the field of organised crime and peace and conflict studies. Regionally he is inclined towards Latin America and Africa as an area of study. Besides being interested in global geopolitics he loves to do standup comedy and play badminton.