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17 February 2021updated 30 Jul 2021 9:54am

The rise of the climate dude

Bill Gates’s faith in a technological fix for climate change is typical of privileged men who think they can swoop in and solve the problems others have spent decades trying to fix.  

By Philippa Nuttall

“How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?” trill the nuns in The Sound of Music. After creating the world’s leading software company and bringing vaccines to the poorest nations, Bill Gates has set out to solve a problem like climate change. Rather than flighty moonbeams, he is putting his faith in moonshot technologies, which he believes will create solutions to the world’s thorniest problem.

“Two decades ago, I would never have predicted that one day I would be talking in public about climate change, much less writing a book about it,” says Gates, who founded Microsoft in 1975. His background is in “software, not climate science” and today he is “super-focused” on global health, development and education via the foundation he runs with his wife Melinda.

The focus on climate change came to Gates via the problem of energy poverty. He explains how his health-related work in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia brought to his attention the “billion people who didn’t have reliable access to electricity”. His initial reaction was “to advocate for making reliable energy affordable for the poor”. But a meeting in 2006 with former Microsoft colleagues and scientists encouraged Gates to see things differently. His conclusion? “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.”

A few years later, after “learning everything I could about climate change”, Gates became convinced global warming could be stopped. His solution is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero, deploy existing clean energies such as solar and wind “faster and smarter”, and to “create and roll out breakthrough technologies”. Technology, for Gates, can solve any problem. He concedes that “innovation isn’t the only thing” needed to fix the climate, but insists “we cannot keep the Earth liveable without it”.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster provides a run-through of all the reasons we need to act on climate change and achieve net zero emissions. Gates insists this will be difficult and expensive to do, but that new and existing technologies can get us there. “I don’t have a solution to the politics of climate change,” he writes, but he acknowledges the importance of “developing new policies so we can demonstrate and deploy those inventions in the market as fast as possible”.

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Alongside Gates’s book comes The New Climate War, by Michael Mann, a well-known American climate scientist. Mann is the genuine article. He started in the field in the early 1990s as a graduate student at Yale University and has never left it. He is less than convinced by Gates’s relatively late conversion to the climate cause.

Gates is a classic example of a “first-time climate dude”, believes Mann. This phenomenon is “the tendency for members of a particular, privileged demographic group (primarily middle-aged, almost exclusively white men) to think they can just swoop in… and solve the great problems that others have spent decades unable to crack”. The result is a mess, “consisting of fatally bad takes and misguided framing couched in deeply condescending mansplaining”.

[see also: Philippe Sands on why “ecocide” should be a crime]

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Mann argues that science, not “unproven” technology, should be the guiding principle. Electrification, energy efficiency, existing renewable energies – solar, wind, wave, geothermal, hydroelectric and tidal – and energy storage should allow us to “meet up to 80 per cent of global energy demand by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2050”. He is particularly scathing about Gates’s funding of geo-engineering – which aims to counteract climate change by intervening in the Earth’s natural systems, for example, by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Such schemes are largely “science fiction”, Mann writes. “And as with science fiction films, bad things tend to happen when we start tampering with Mother Nature.” Gates is more sanguine. He describes geo-engineering as “a cutting-edge, ‘Break Glass in Case of Emergency’ kind of tool” to have in case disaster strikes. “There may come a day when we don’t have a choice. Best to prepare for that day now.”

Such doom-mongering fires up Mann. In the “new climate war”, he heads an army that discounts the prospect of failure. “The climate crisis is very real,” he says. “But it is not unsolvable. And it’s not too late to act.” The opposition is no longer the climate deniers of yesteryear, but a more insidious group: “doomsayers” and “defeatists” who push “climate doom porn” and the idea that “climate change is just too big a problem for us to solve”, says Mann. They also peddle the other “Ds”: “disinformation, deceit, divisiveness, deflection, delay”.

That two high-profile books on climate change have been published within a week of each other proves the subject has reached the top of the mainstream agenda. Together, Mann and Gates offer a rounded view of the climate debate, but Mann’s book is the more readable. His prose rattles along, entertaining and horrifying us in equal measure as he exposes scientists, politicians, the conservative media and other supposed experts who have slowed climate action by caring more about the interests of big industry.

Gates, on the other hand, can be irksome. He’s never afraid to name drop, so the book is littered with phrases such as, “I met with François Hollande, who was the president of France,” or, “Warren Buffett and I were talking…” And he loves nothing more than reminding us how much he is investing in fighting climate change. “I’ve put more than $1bn into approaches that I hope will help the world get to zero,” he casually notes.

Mann is correct the world needs to speed up its adoption of existing solutions, end its love affair with fossil fuels and “call out false solutions for what they are”. However, framing climate action as a “war” is more questionable. Mann suggests some of his colleagues are in denial because they dismiss his notion that they are fighting with powerful interests. “The dismissiveness of soothing myths and appeasement didn’t serve us well in World War II, and it won’t serve us well here either,” he says. That may be true, but war can encourage people to retreat further into their own views, meaning greater destruction and a slower pace of change.

In The Sound of Music, rather than fight Maria, the nuns wish they could get her to listen. It is time, as Gates suggests, to centre in on “realistic, specific plans for getting to zero”. However, he should pay more attention to Mann’s conclusion that technological innovation is only a part of the solution, and not even necessarily the biggest one. Systemic change “incentivised by appropriate government policy”, and intergovernmental agreements matched with the belief that “there is still time to create a better future” should form the basis of all climate plans.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster
Bill Gates
Allen Lane, 272pp, £20

The New Climate War
Michael Mann
Scribe, 368pp, £16.99

[see also: To have any climate credibility, Britain must cancel its new coal mine]

This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth