Why to Avoid Reading a Book on Climate Change Written by a Billionaire

A rejected book review of – How to Avoid A Climate Disaster – by Bill Gates

The banality of Bill Gates’ book is its best-selling point. Once you acknowledge that, you can recommend the first half of the first chapter of the book to school-going children as a beginner’s guide to climate change. Only, if they live in the US. And, then see which ones find it banal as well. That could be a way of identifying children who have rather early on in their lives developed more sophisticated ways of understanding human society than Bill Gates’ spin-a-solution-in-257-pages offers.

The billionaire has written a book, if the title did not make it clear, on how to avoid the climate change disaster which threatens the planet and consequently human society.

The crux of it, as Bill Gates will have it: There are some technological switches and innovations the world needs to make. The moment the World (actually, the US) follows his tips, the planet will be saved.

There are some little glitches that you might need to address along the way, The book points to some. Such as getting countries to beat their primal instinct of economic dominance or competitiveness to work together. Or, of moving literally hundreds of billions of dollars across continents to poor countries. It misses other ones such as smacking down the vested interests of rich men like him.

But, if you were to read Gate’s book you would think those are at best, important side-stories to the main plot: good technology shall save humanity. From bad technology.

The author wants to keep things light amidst what he rightly identifies as humanity’s most difficult challenge. Understandable. After all, it is a dummy’s bad guide to climate change. So he gets some people from his empire to help him select the right graphs and the photographs to breathe in some air and compensate for the dullness of his featureless text. Although, it’s kind of cute, in ways that only billionaires are permitted to be, that Gates thinks it could help in reading the book to insert a family photograph of him visiting the Prihunkagigur volcano in Iceland in 2015, where he also gets to check out a geothermal power plant next door.

He is not the first one to write these DIY (do-it-yourself) technology books on climate change. I would like to believe he is not the first billionaire either. Just as all crises are, climate change is a good fad for billionaire boys, who go to Davos. It never did anyone any harm to hop on over to Iceland and visit a geothermal power plant or two next doors, did it?

Wait. I am getting ahead of myself. A book review needs to have a structure. Whether the book deserves it or not. I let my exasperation at sitting in the middle of a government-induced pan-country disaster (the thousands dying due to lack of oxygen supply in Indian hospitals as the pandemic rage and leaves them gasping) to read Mr. Gate’s Richie Rich version of climate change get the better of me.

So what does the book tell you? The first half of the first chapter, it tells you what is climate change and why it is happening. It is a significant place to pause in the book. For good. From here on, the book begins to deteriorate.

The second half of the first chapter gives a catch-all solution to the crisis, called ‘Net Zero Emissions’. I shall let you, the reader, look that term up on the internet.

To reach these Net Zero Emissions, in the second chapter Mr. Gates assures everyone it will be hard. But he glides over these hard bits in 17 pages to quickly reach chapter three and show some quick calculations of what a Net-Zero sum game means. It is nice and pretentiously geeky. But, you have not got to the meat of the book yet.

In the fourth chapter he launches off to be the billionaire he is, “My son, Rory, and I used to visit power plants for fun. Just to learn how they worked. I’m glad I’ve invested all that time learning about electricity. For one thing, it was a great father-son activity.” The chapter is about producing electricity without burning fossil fuels that lead to greenhouse gas emissions which cause global warming. Besides upping the game on solar, wind, green power-carrying grid lines, and battery storage he makes a strong pitch for ramping up nuclear power and in passing on consuming less energy. All in the context of the US.

Before you realise he is breezing into Chapter five to tell you how we need to manufacture essential goods that are less dependent on raw materials which come from burning fossil fuels. Stuff like cement, plastics, and steel. He sums up the solution, “Electrify every process possible…get that electricity from a power grid that’s been decarbonised…use carbon capture to absorb remaining emissions…use material more efficiently.”

Solved, we get onto fixing agriculture, the greenhouse gas emissions from livestock reared for meat, and the fast-disappearing forests in the global South (the global North cut much of its natural forest much before you and I learnt the phrase environmental colonialism). To ensure farting cows are eaten less in the US, Mr. Gates offers the technology he is investing in, plant-based artificial meat. On the slide, he advocates for the US to not prevent him from labelling it as ‘meat’ so he can sell it better (after all, it could go some way in saving the planet!). To save the forests, he claims it is a ‘political and economic problem’ and then half-provides a sham as a solution – grow more trees. He misses the adage, missing the forests for the trees. But, then again, he is missing a lot more through the book.

Chapter by chapter Gates resolves it all for humanity. He tells you how to have clean transportation, green heating, and cooling systems and adapt to inevitable climate change (this bit has a photo of him standing with a few cows and farmers in Kenya to boot). Universal truths are strewn across the pages as sub-heads: “Cities need to change the way they grow, focus on the most vulnerable people, factor climate change into policy decisions, help farmers manage the risks from more chaotic weather.”

Almost as if to ensure he is not blamed for missing out on it, there is a sliver of a chapter on why government policies matter. A middle on innovation and technology and then a chapter on what all good DIY books must tell: “What each of us can do.”

I read these chapters so you and your children do not have to. Stop at the first half of the first chapter. Why you may ask?

Because, reading further you might get the impression all it takes is a goofy, sweet, and geeky globetrotting-self to become a genius billionaire and some techno-interventions to save the planet.

Neither is true. It takes a whole lot of business acumen to be the first. Mr. Gates prefers not to talk of the first. This is the kind of book one writes after one has made his billions, poured his billions into philanthropy that part-promotes investments to grow yet more billions. It is the kind of book one writes when one has a few score people (who Mr Gates generously credits at the end of the book) to tell that ‘One’ what to write to come off as a do and sound good honorary chief of a salvation army.

It certainly takes more to resolve the biggest long-ranging challenge humanity faces. Do not get me wrong. Mr. Gates is right: technology is a key. But, ask yourself this? If Mr. Gates and many like him have the technology list ready (or almost ready) why is it taking the World, its most powerful nations, and citizens heading these nations, so long to fix the problem?

I would recommend you read anything that answers the above question rather than Mr. Gates, who is rather averse to corporates in the global North relaxing their patents for manufacturers in the global South to produce vaccines against the Covid-19 pandemic. Underneath the banality of his book lies such real-world challenges, that Mr. Gates has decided it’s best to avoid discussing.

Nitin Sethi is a journalist with The Reporters’ Collective (www.reporters-collective.in).
Besides other things, he has written on the intersections of climate change, science, politics, and governance for over a decade.