At age 65, Bill Gates continues to walk through life with all of the brashness of an algebra teacher. While his peers among the ultrarich enjoy crocodile breeding, dating pop stars, or traveling by hot-air balloon, the cofounder of Microsoft has devoted his spare time to book collecting and games of bridge. With a soft voice and vigorously boring fashion sense, it’s as if he’s trying to politely underplay his immense success as a businessman or the $36 billion he and his wife, Melinda, have donated to their influential eponymous foundation, which specializes in public health, education, and poverty reduction.
This brand of blandness is on prominent display in his new book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need. Writing with an uncommon level of calm and self-assurance when discussing the perils of a warming planet, Gates presents climate change as simply a technical problem waiting to be debugged, and finding a solution as more of a mechanical question than a human one. “I think more like an engineer than a political scientist,” he writes in the introduction. “And I don’t have a solution to the politics of climate change. Instead, what I hope to do is focus the conversation on what getting to zero [emissions] requires.”
This approach provoked a range of responses when the book dropped last week, with ample exposure from 60 Minutes to a special issue of Fortune. While The Wall Street Journal praised its optimism and “can do” spirit, the New Statesman detected a strong hint of self-importance “typical of privileged men.” Amid all the takes, it’s been hard to parse whether his points are brilliant and original or oblivious and not worth your time because they come from an overconfident billionaire.
What you can expect from the book is a readable, broadly drawn guide to global warming, its roots in human activity, and the suffering that will surely follow if our activities aren’t made carbon-neutral. Writing with an approachable vocabulary and level of detail, Gates introduces inventors and engineers who are developing alternatives. Conveniently, they often work for companies in which he is a direct investor, such as TerraPower, a firm focused on nuclear-reactor development. Little is said about the need to change consumption habits in rich countries, or about whether people in Chad or Nicaragua should yearn for the same vision of prosperity as those rich countries; instead, Gates focuses on how all countries, rich or poor, can enjoy the same quality of life, powered by a green version of activities that would otherwise accelerate the process of global warming.
In many cases, those versions already exist but have built-in expenses—what he calls Green Premiums—that are too great for poorer countries to access. In the case of heavy manufacturing (see the chapter “How We Make Things”), a green alternative to cement can cost 140 percent more. In transportation (“How We Get Around”), the cost of advanced biofuels is 106 percent. For power generation (“How We Plug In”), Gates estimates that the added expense of a carbon-neutral alternative to our country’s electrical system is in the range of just 15 percent. The main goal, in his opinion, is to bring the specific Green Premium down as low as possible by harnessing technology, so that the cost of a zero-emissions alternative (or one close to it) is as low or lower than one reliant on fossil fuels.
It’s telling that in the category of heating and refrigeration (“How We Keep Cool and Stay Warm”), the Green Premium is actually negative—an air-source heat pump, which works like a conventional freezer, would be 26 percent cheaper than using an air conditioner and a natural-gas-powered furnace. Unfortunately, many state and local building codes have made it more cumbersome, or even illegal, to replace their gas appliances with alternatives powered by carbon-neutral electricity, which is a point that Gates doesn’t dwell on for long. It can be frustrating to read many passages in How to Avoid a Climate Disaster that seem to avert attention from the decisive effect that government intervention can have on a given technology’s commercial success. Only toward the end of the book does Gates acknowledge that the business of personal computers (including Microsoft’s) would have been inviable without decades of R&D support, made possible by taxpayers through grants from the National Science Foundation. Similarly, much of the “cheapness” of oil and gas can be traced to subsidies and write-offs, borne out of tireless government lobbying, which distort the market in their favor.
These distortions are stubborn and more meaningful than Gates is ready to concede. The word “lobbying” never appears in his book, and he gives a sheepish explanation for the foundation’s own divestment from fossil fuels. (In The Nation, writer Tim Schwab argues that the divestment decision may have had less to do with outright moral principle than with the plummeting of oil and gas business.) Gates also leaves the last election cycle out of the conversation, perhaps because Microsoft donated $81,995 during that time to the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), an advocacy group intent on forcing approval for the Keystone XL pipeline. (The company has since withdrawn support for RAGA, citing its role in promoting election-fraud conspiracies that led to the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.)
Clearly, Gates has some blind spots. He is a nonexpert who travels frequently on private jets, and he readily calls himself an “imperfect messenger.” More importantly, he is not willing to talk frankly about the ways in which a zero-carbon future might conflict with the interests of for-profit business. Without addressing that problem, his only remaining credential is that he’s a well-meaning person who cares.
There’s nothing shameful in his being well-meaning, of course. Nor is there anything really wrong with endorsing a future based on shared progress and prosperity, in which everyone has a chance to be heard, and, in a sense, everyone wins. It just so happens that the reality is much more adversarial. Gates would do well to admit it.