Bill Gates comes to this issue with down-to-earth prose and common sense solutions. As someone who grew up in the 1970’s when we first began REALLY talking about climate issues, his references to that time period should serve as a reminder that this is not something that has just started to be debated. And full disclosure, I did not read this book without a bias. My Dad was the Director of the Southwest for DOE for Nuclear and Alternative Energy Sources. In the 1980’s, he served under President Carter as special advisor on the issue and was tapped by President Reagan to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and Alternative Energy. He declined the post because it was not “politically feasible to close out the nuclear cycle” which was to deal with the waste issue. For many years we sidelined R&D into zero carbon technologies because fossil fuels were and are just too cheap to displace. Things are changing but it is a very complex and highly charged issue. Vaclav Smil, Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba, has written at length on the vital importance of energy in civilization. I don’t believe we can just simply “stop using so much energy.” We need to find other non-carbon emitting forms. For climate change deniers, it is difficult to understand how one can believe that we can emit into the atmosphere over 51 billion tons of carbon, methane, etc. per year and NOT experience some negative consequences. Or that we can continue to decimate both old and new growth forests to the tune of billions of trees and NOT have blowback. The truth is the majority of the human species is hardwired to deal with problems in front of its nose. This isn’t negative. It was a part of the evolutionary press to survive. But survival is easier now and we can begin to look at problems downstream. Unfortunately, once this issue becomes a crisis, there will be little to do to mitigate it. Fortunately, there are many working on the issues before they are a crisis. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster covers many of the potential solutions. Hopefully, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster will open up a national, if not international, discussion into a very complex problem without any easy answers or solutions.
The only criticism I have of Bill Gates’ book is it is almost too optimistic. I am a positive person, but I recognize that the extreme optimism that seems to prevail amongst technologists can be somewhat unrealistic. You can always just throw a technology at a problem and then move on without looking back.
For example, Bill Gates cites the population growth projections as something that technology can address. With technology, we will be able to supply enough food, water, air, standard of living, etc. to sustain doubling our population over the remainder of the century. This doesn’t truly address sustainability or the true carrying capacity of the earth. It doesn’t address biodiversity, habitat destruction, degraded soil, etc. He also does not address one of the most alarming aspects of all technology–each new technology has the potential for benefit and destructiveness. The upside and downside of everything. At no point does he address the downside to any potential technology. As someone who grew up with a nuclear engineer who was well versed in physics and knee-deep in public policy, I was fully aware at a young age that nuclear energy has a huge upside but also a huge downside. In France where I lived for a little over a year, they receive 70% of their energy from nuclear power. But it is impossible to ignore the lessons of Chernobyl or Fukushima. I suspect there will be similar concerns over nuclear fusion which is something Gates did not address.
Living in Texas Hill Country and surviving our now famous polar vortex plunge, the nation is fully aware of how Texas did or did not respond appropriately to the fierce freeze that left everyone struggling to survive. Fifty-seven people did not. Personally, we lost our power for 20 hours. Our generator supplied some relief, but our heat pump was not hooked up to it. It was cold. It is easy to blame Texas, but it is just the last situation in the public conscience. There are places in the world where power is intermittent if it exists at all. I lived in Connecticut when the grid went down, the Halloween snow storm left us without power for 8 days, and Hurricane Sandy left us without power for 9 days. We rely on our energy and our sources are vulnerable to climate change. We can “play possum,” but it won’t change the facts.
It was hard not to give How to Avoid a Climate Disaster 5 stars. I just struggled with the over-optimism. Overall though, it is a must-must-must-read.