President Joe Biden has promised a new era of American leadership on global climate action, after four years of unscientific denial and misinformation under Donald Trump. Two important new books by prominent American authors, both written before the result of the presidential election was known, should help to capitalise on the new spirit of cautious optimism by laying out bold but well-argued plans for accelerating action against climate change.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need by Bill Gates presents a compelling explanation of how the world can stop global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions effectively to zero. Gates and his wife, Melinda, are well known for their foundation’s tremendous work on improving health and tackling disease around the world, particularly in poor countries. It is this concern for the most vulnerable people on the planet that has meant Gates has occasionally appeared equivocal about climate and energy policies that he thought could undermine the fight against poverty and illness. However, this book lays out forcefully his understanding that the impact of climate change poses a far bigger threat to lives and livelihoods in developing countries – it is thwarting efforts to raise living standards because poor people, in every country, are the most at risk from droughts, floods and heatwaves.
Gates rightly emphasises the importance of improving the resilience of both rich and poor countries to current and future climate change that cannot now be avoided. But his book leaves no doubt that adapting to the impact is not a solution on its own – we must also eliminate global emissions of greenhouse gases.
His strategy for reaching zero emissions is laid out in a very straightforward way, using numbers to help guide the reader to the magnitude of the challenge. He notes that annual emissions of greenhouse gases before the Covid-19 pandemic were well over 50bn tonnes worldwide, and rising. Getting to zero within the next few decades will be no mean feat.
The book breaks down the sources of these emissions into a few broad categories – making things, plugging in, and getting around – and Gates knows how to frame issues in terms with which everybody should be able to engage, without dumbing down the material.
At its highest level, his strategy is simple: make power generation zero-carbon by replacing fossil fuels with renewables and nuclear power, and then electrify as much of our activities as possible. This works in theory, but creates significant challenges, such as how to manage the intermittency of supply from sources such as solar panels and wind turbines.
A key device used by Gates is to calculate the cost of clean alternatives relative to fossil fuels, and where they are currently more expensive, to quantify the difference as a “green premium”. He then explains how this premium can be reduced through innovation and government policies. The credibility of the strategy is strengthened by references throughout to technologies in which Gates is investing his own money, such as novel ways to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and then store it. He also acknowledges that his sincerity will be doubted by some because of his wealth and use of private jets, for instance. But I think readers will discover from his book that he is a serious and genuine force for good on climate change.
Mann says that, far from needing a miracle, we could achieve 100% clean electricity with current renewable technologies
The only major concern I have is that in emphasising, correctly, the importance of rich countries reaching zero emissions by 2050, he appears to suggest that cuts in greenhouse gases over the next 10 years are less important. In fact, the amount of warming we face depends on cumulative emissions, so countries such as the US and UK need to be cutting sharply from now, and for the next 30 years.
Gates is also caught in the crosshairs in Professor Michael E Mann’s book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, which criticises the 2016 edition of the billionaire’s annual letter, written with Melinda, for highlighting the challenges of cutting emissions and declaring “we need an energy miracle”. Mann, America’s most famous climate scientist, points out that many zero-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels are now cost-competitive with fossil fuels. He even suggests that, far from needing a miracle, we could achieve 100% clean electricity with current renewable technologies alone.
The main focus of Mann’s book is a call to arms in the new war against “inactivists” who are using new tactics of “deception, distraction and delay” to prevent the phase-out of fossil fuels. Mann is a robust character, and has fought off several disgraceful onslaughts against him and his work by climate change deniers in US politics and the media over the past 20 years. He warns that vested interests and ideological extremists who oppose efforts to eliminate fossil fuels no longer deny outright the reality of climate change because people can now see the evidence for it all around them. Instead, opponents of action now rely on slightly subtler arguments, and Mann reveals how they are sometimes unwittingly assisted by clumsy communications from climate scientists and campaigners.
He cautions against highlighting in particular the need for action by individual citizens and consumers. As important as personal efforts are, they can distract attention away from the critical role of governments and companies in making systemic changes.
Withington golf course, after the River Mersey broke its banks in Didsbury, Manchester, 21 January.
Withington golf course, after the River Mersey broke its banks in Didsbury, Manchester, 21 January. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
Mann criticises the practice of flight-shaming climate researchers, because it creates the false impression that experts have to experience personal sacrifice and deprivation to be taken seriously, regardless of how successful they are in persuading politicians to act. Despite the attention devoted to it, flying is responsible for about 3% of annual greenhouse gas emissions.
Mann also attacks “doomsayers”, including some members of Extinction Rebellion, who claim that we have already passed the point of no return, condemning us all to imminent climate destruction. Such claims are not based on science and have the effect of making people give up on efforts to rid the world of fossil fuels.
Mann does not pull his punches, but his aim is usually strong and true. This book will no doubt prove controversial for some climate campaigners, as well as the deniers, but I hope it will be read by everybody who is engaged in making the case for action.
Both Mann and Gates appear optimistic that the world can stop climate change, but they are also under no illusions about the scale of the challenge we face and the many obstacles that lie in our way. They also show just how wrong those people are who think we cannot or should not succeed.