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How To Avoid A Climate Disaster
by Bill Gates
(Allen Lane, £20)
MICROSOFT co-founder and multibillionaire Bill Gates is perhaps not the obvious person to write a roadmap out of the climate crisis. Nonetheless, his book How To Avoid a Climate Disaster will likely be this year’s bestseller on the topic.
Gates gives an admirably coherent, convincing and well-articulated explanation of the problems facing the planet and, by extension, humanity, and the book serves very well as a beginners’ guide to climate science.
As a technologist, Gates also has a solid understanding of the technical solutions needed to prevent climate breakdown.
His approach is pragmatic and in places highly controversial. He makes a strong case that we should invest in next-generation nuclear power, as Russia and China are doing, since it will be very difficult to get to net-zero emissions in the next 30 years on the basis of wind, solar and hydropower alone.
Surprisingly, the book doesn’t suffer from too much of a First World bias. Gates understands the historic correlation between energy consumption and standard of living and that it is impractical and immoral to advocate that countries of the global South reduce or restrict their energy consumption.
He recognises that it is poorer countries, and poorer communities in richer countries, who are suffering most from climate change, in spite of having contributed the least to the problem. As such he highlights the need for developed countries to shoulder the bulk of the cost burden for a global green transition.
The clear weakness of the book is its economic and political framework. Gates is one of the most successful capitalists of all time and doesn’t seem to be able to think outside the parameters of the market.
Things will be solved with price indicators, supply and demand, consumer power, a regulation here, a target there. Companies will have to spend more on green R&D, while local governments will have to take “externalities” into account when doing their procurement.
But that’s exactly the methodology the world has been using to tackle climate change for the last 30 years and the problem is not one of motivation or information.
There’s a huge structural roadblock in the form of the centrality of private profit and individual gain in a capitalist economic system, made all the worse by the four-decade supremacy of neoliberal economics, characterised by financialisation, privatisation and deregulation.
The most significant progress currently being made on a green transition is in China, a developing country with a per capita income level similar to that of Brazil.
Its economy is structured such that “politics are in command” and the government has made green development a top priority, reflected at every level of economic planning.
As Gates points out, Chinese investment in renewable energy over the last decade has resulted in a 90 per cent cost reduction in solar and wind power worldwide. It’s not just that the Chinese had access to a preview edition of Gates’s book, it’s that the government exercises control over capital, rather than the other way round.
But it’s also not enough to shout “one solution, revolution” — we don’t have enough time to wait for the Western left to figure out how to build socialism.
In the major capitalist economies, what we need is a massive public investment-driven programme of research, the deployment of green technologies and climate change mitigation — a Green New Deal.
Gates doesn’t get behind this, presumably because he knows that the larger part of the capitalist class opposes it. It will mean rolling back decades of neoliberalism and imposing Keynesian reforms and regulations on an unprecedented scale.
A more politically advanced author would have discussed the Green New Deal and encouraged people to unite around it.
It is not beyond reach but it will take determined and united struggle to make it happen.
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