Bill Gates, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster – Here are my Five Lessons and Takeaways

HowToAvoidAClimateDisaster_Banner_1800x1200px (002)• There are two numbers you need to know about climate change. The first is 51 billion. The other is zero.
• Fifty-one billion is how many tons of greenhouse gases the world typically adds to the atmosphere every year. Zero is what we need to aim for.  
• This sounds difficult, because it will be. The world has never done anything quite this big. • Every country will need to change its ways.
But we can’t solve a problem like climate change without an honest accounting of how much we need to do and what obstacles we need to overcome.  
• To sum up: We need to accomplish something gigantic we have never done before, much faster than we have ever done anything similar. To do it, we need lots of breakthroughs in science and engineering. We need to build a consensus that doesn’t exist and create public policies to push a transition that would not happen otherwise.
Bill Gates, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster


It’s a subtle, but very real shift.

In Bill Gates’ book How to Avoid a Climate Disaaster, Mr. Gates spends no time making the case that climate change is real.  He just accepts that it is; and now our job is to avoid the catastrophic consequences of doing…not enough.

In other words, he treats the “debate” on whether or not climate change is real as over, and now he says “what shall we do about it?”.  He writes: The earth is warming, it’s warming because of human activity, and the impact is bad and will get much worse. We have every reason to believe that at some point the impact will be catastrophic. …Despite the scientific uncertainties that remain, we understand enough to know that what’s coming will be bad.

I presented my synopsis of this book last Friday at the April, 2021 First Friday Book Synopsis (which was the beginning of our 24th year of monthly gatherings, by the way).

The recently-published book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, has already received much discussion, and was #1 on the March, 2021 New York Times list of best-selling business books.

As always, in my synopses, I ask “what is the point?” of this book.  Here is my answer for this book:  Because of climate change, the climate, and thus the planet, is headed toward disaster; creating disaster for many, many people.  We can still act.  Here’s how. 

And I ask “Why is this book worth our time?” Here are my three answers for this book:

#1 – This book is a comprehensive, yet readable, treatment of the climate challenges.
#2 – This book provides a hopeful strategy for action. Not easy; not quick; but hopeful.
#3 – This book will remind you that this is a world-wide challenge; a true international set of issues.  We need to look at this very broad view with an open mind.

I always include a number of highlighted passages from the books I present.  Here are the best of the highlighted passages I included in this synopsis:

• Everything I’ve learned about climate and technology makes me optimistic that we can invent them, deploy them, and, if we act fast enough, avoid a climate catastrophe.   
• Eventually it sank in. The world needs to provide more energy so the poorest can thrive, but we need to provide that energy without releasing any more greenhouse gases.  It wasn’t enough to deliver cheap, reliable energy for the poor. It also had to be clean.
• We need new tools for fighting climate change: zero-carbon ways to produce electricity, make things, grow food, keep our buildings cool and warm, and move people and goods around the world. And we need new seeds and other innovations to help the world’s poorest people—many of whom are smallholder farmers—adapt to a warmer climate. pg. 13 
• I know innovation isn’t the only thing we need. But we cannot keep the earth livable without it. …Techno-fixes are not sufficient, but they are necessary.
• The bad news: Getting to zero will be really hard. 
The good news: We can do it.  
• There’s no scenario in which we keep adding carbon to the atmosphere and the world stops getting hotter, and the hotter it gets, the harder it will be for humans to survive, much less thrive.  
• In climate terms, a change of just a few degrees is a big deal. During the last ice age, the average temperature was just 6 degrees Celsius lower than it is today. During the age of the dinosaurs, when the average temperature was perhaps 4 degrees Celsius higher than today, there were crocodiles living above the Arctic Circle.  
• To have any hope of staving off disaster, the world’s biggest emitters—the richest countries—have to get to net-zero emissions by 2050. I’ve heard people object to the idea that rich countries should go first: It’s not simply because we’ve caused most of the problem. It’s also because this is a huge economic opportunity: The countries that build great zero-carbon companies and industries will be the ones that lead the global economy in the coming decades. 
• By 2060, the world’s building stock—a measure that factors in the number of buildings and their size—will double. That’s like putting up another New York City every month for 40 years, and it’s mainly because of growth in developing countries like China, India, and Nigeria.  
• We’re using more natural gas and less coal to generate electricity. Why? Because new drilling techniques made it much cheaper. It was a matter of economics, not the environment. 
• We have a large and understandable incentive to stick with what we know, even if what we know is killing us.    
• People cut down trees not because people are evil; they do it when the incentives to cut down trees are stronger than the incentives to leave them alone.

In the book, he teaches us much.  For example, what creates the most greenhouse emissions?  Here are the percentages:

  • Making things (cement, steel, plastic) — 31% of all greenhouse emissions
  • Plugging in (electricity) — 27% of all greenhouse emissions
  • Growing things (plants, animals) — 19% of all greenhouse emissions
  • Getting around (planes, trucks, cargo ships) — 16% of all greenhouse emissions
  • Keeping warm and cool (heating, cooling, refrigeration) — 7% of all greenhouse emissions

He really does argue that we have to get to zero emissions.  He tells what I call the parable of the bathtub…  The climate is like a bathtub that’s slowly filling up with water. Even if we slow the flow of water to a trickle, the tub will eventually fill up and water will come spilling out onto the floor. That’s the disaster we have to prevent. …To avoid a climate disaster, we have to get to zero. We need to deploy the tools we already have, like solar and wind, faster and smarter. And we need to create and roll out breakthrough technologies that can take us the rest of the way. The case for zero was, and is, rock solid.

Here are a few of his other key points:

  • Five Questions to ask in every climate conversation:

            #1 — How Much of the 51 Billion Tons Are We Talking About?

  • Tip: Whenever you see some number of tons of greenhouse gases, convert it to a percentage of 51 billion, which is the world’s current yearly total emissions (in carbon dioxide equivalents).

            #2 — What’s Your Plan for Cement?

            #3 — How Much Power Are We Talking About?

  • Tip: Whenever you hear “kilowatt,” think “house.” “Gigawatt,” think “city.” A hundred or more gigawatts, think “big country.”

            #4 — How Much Space Do You Need?

  • Tip: If someone tells you that some source (wind, solar, nuclear, whatever) can supply all the energy the world needs, find out how much space will be required to produce that much energy.

            #5 — How Much Is This Going to Cost?

  • Here’s a summary of all five tips: Convert tons of emissions to a percentage of 51 billion. Remember that we need to find solutions for all five activities that emissions come from: making things, plugging in, growing things, getting around, and keeping cool and warm. Kilowatt = house. Gigawatt = mid-size city. Hundreds of gigawatts = big, rich country. Consider how much space you’re going to need. Keep the Green Premiums in mind and ask whether they’re low enough for middle-income countries to pay.
  • Pay attention to the green premium
  • this is the difference between what we pay now vs. what we would pay with green technology. (think cost per mile for gas-driven car vs. electric powered car). The difference is the green premium. (R.M.; Let me tell you about my wife’s preferred coffee. $8.00 at Kroger; $16.00 for the fair-trade coffee from our coffee expert.The “coffee premium” is $8.00).
  • Where do we need to focus our research and development spending, our early investors, and our best inventors? Answer: wherever we decide Green Premiums are too high.
  • Local governments are going to have to play a big role…
  • Local governments play an important role in determining how buildings are constructed and what kinds of energy they use, whether buses and police cars run on electricity, whether there’s a charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, and how waste gets managed. 
  • And national governments also. In short, every national government needs to do three things.
  • First, make it a goal to get to zero—by 2050 for rich countries, and as soon after 2050 as possible for middle-income countries.
  • Second, develop specific plans for meeting those goals. To get to zero by 2050, we’ll need to have the policy and market structures in place by 2030.
  • And third, any country that’s in a position to fund research needs to make sure it’s on track to make clean energy so cheap—to reduce the Green Premiums so much—that middle-income countries will be able to get to zero.
  • When it comes to scaling up new technologies, the federal government plays the largest role of anyone.

And here are my five lessons and takeaways:

#1 – We have talked about this for too long, without truly acting.  It is time to act (before it is truly too late).
#2 – Personal behavioral change will not be enough. We need national and international behavioral change, and new BIG innovation efforts.
#3 – Conservation efforts and some cleaning up will not be enough,.  We need true technological breakthroughs.
#4 – For true progress to be made, it is going to take everybody working on it together; individuals; corporations; every level and lever of government (local; state; national; international agencies; and governments in every country).
#5 – This is not a nice thing to think about. This is, literally, life and death for many, many people; and for our very planet’s future.

What Bill Gates says in this book is that we have to quit putting greenhouse emissions into our atmosphere as much as we possibly can; and then we have to remove the emissions we can’t fully stop from adding to the atmosphere.

It is a big job.  But he believes that we have capability to pull this off.

Let’s hope he is right.


My synopsis of this book will soon be available for purchase.  All of my synopses come with my comprehensive, multi-page handouts, and the audio recording of my presentation.
Click on the “buy synopses” tab at the top of this page to search by book title. And click here for our newest additions.

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