Bill Gates in 2008. Photo: World Economic Forum/Flickr, CC BY NC SA 2.0.
Bill Gates has written a remarkable book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need (2021): it cuts through the smog and tells us how technology can help overcome the climate crisis.
It is a succinct summary of climate science (chapters 4 to 8) that segues into offering a suite of interventions and solutions (chapters 9 to 12) that are sure to be a primer for investors and institutions. The generous advance praise and blurbs on the cover, and a phalanx of experts and reviewers in the acknowledgement, assure you that this is all you will ever need to know about climate change and how we can take care of it hereon.
What I enjoyed about the book is the optimism and aplomb with which Gates single-handedly charts a clear roadmap for everyone to adopt. But his tone is deferential and a lesson in humility for billionaires, providing details about how the Gates family and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have advanced discussions on various fronts of public health and development, and now climate. I admire his willingness to wager on tech that can be a game-changer (like investing and being sporting about losing $50 million with a company that promised to convert tree biomass into ethanol). He is aware of the risks and rewards of adopting nuclear energy, geo-engineering and new technologies on the horizon.
But I also have several points of departure from the prescription that Gates offers. There are vital pieces missing in his narrative – the most important one being that his climate equation is devoid of nature, its processes, the diverse ecosystems and their lifeforms and myriad communities that depend deeply on each other for their survival. In fact, in the entire book, the word ‘nature’ appears only once.
Anyone who understands nature’s processes knows that soils, mud, detritus, mulch, sand, gravel, grit and rock are crucial pieces in the climate change story, as are ocean currents, wind circulation, shapes and size of landmasses and, of course, lifeforms – especially microbes, the principal primary energy producers on Earth and which regulate the bulk of Earth’s carbon-oxygen cycle. When these small pieces come together, they drive Earth’s engine.
Over billions of years, the uplift of continents and the exposure, submergence and melting of rocks has created a flux of minerals and elements. This engine is an enormous, planetary-scale, biogeochemical reactor — but it starts from small things. Two elements in particular – carbon and silicon – are very important. They are among the most abundant and versatile, and they form minerals easily with one another. When they work in tandem, their combined power is immense. We see this play out when rain falls over young Himalayan granite, etching out reactive silica that binds with the carbon dioxide trapped in the drops of rain. It is carried into streams and becomes a mighty river, where the carbon dioxide sinks and is buried in a maze of submarine canyons in the Bay of Bengal. Some scientists consider the Ganga to be the most efficient at burying carbon among all landscapes and features on Earth.
At the bottom of the seas, Earth’s other geological features, like volcanic lava and roiling magma, also transform carbonate rocks back into silicates, and there are tiny shelly creatures that bring these back to the surface. Landscape, lifeforms and geological processes have a large part to play in the carbon (and other mineral) cycle. Even if these processes literally take place at a geological pace, the scale is so massive that it is still enough to heal the planet.
In a more profound and immediate way, billions of interdependent microbes and plants in soil and water fix carbon in its organic form. Much of this gets buried in the depths of the oceans for tens of thousands of years, or for hundreds of years in the soil if left undisturbed. A small fraction re-enters the atmosphere as gases or leaches into the substratum to form minerals.
Nature can take a few seasons to capture and store carbon, as plants grow and die and soil microbes accumulate their organic material. It can also take centuries as trees in forests gather girth, or millions of years if geological processes like the one mentioned above play out. But natural decomposition or worse, a forest fire, can decimate both centuries-old forests and young grasses that sprung up a few days ago. No matter how much carbon we trap on the surface by simply planting trees, it is still at risk of being released into the atmosphere.
Instead, we need to follow the path of fossil fuels that got made over millions of years. Billions of tonnes of organic plant matter got buried under layers of sediments and rock, and got cooked in intense heat and pressure. They remain buried under layers of rock. Only if they are deliberately extracted and burnt for energy do they release greenhouse gases. We must therefore bury and lock the excess carbon under layers of rocks or deep sea sediments.
The key to finding a sustainable solution for climate change lies with deep carbon burial – a point that Gates’s book misses completely. Should we then wait for geological processes to play out or forests to regenerate? Not at all. We can develop a host of intermediate and hybrid technologies to capture and lock carbon safely for thousands of years or more. Such technological interventions must mimic nature’s processes or plug into natural processes and speed them up – not work against them.
Using nature-mimicking technologies (instead of just direct air-capture or point-capture, as Gates proposes to harvest carbon) can help restore ecosystems, and revive our obliterated ponds, lakes, rivers, wetlands and oceans. By ignoring biological and geological principles, the intricacies of the carbon cycle and how it is intermeshed with other element cycles, and the role of organisms and plants, we would create a synthetic world – a world bereft of the magic of nature and life.
Gates’s book only mentions ‘ecosystem’ five times in the context of water security, and mentions ‘deforestation’ largely in the context of agriculture. Gates says “restoring ecosystems has a huge payoff” for urban water security. He continues: “Planting mangroves is much cheaper than building breakwaters, and the trees also improve the water quality. They’re a great investment.” You are spot on, Mr Gates, but the right term is ‘rewilding’, not ‘planting’.
Sadly, this lack of consideration is reflected in Gates’s own investments, like Coca Cola – a corporation that has for a long time been accused of over-extracting groundwater and contributing greatly to plastic pollution. So his investments not only defeat his thesis on conserving water but are also detrimental to his Foundation’s commitment to fighting non-communicable diseases.
The data in the book is reminiscent of the late Hans Rosling‘s elegant style of breaking down complex datasets. But some tables and figures are also oversimplified; they will benefit by including the ranges and means.
In chapter 12, Gates prescribes what consumers need to do; some bits read like tobacco industry memos: you are responsible for the moral choices you make and the consequences you face. One could argue that, unlike the COVAX alliance for COVID-19, governments and markets have failed to incentivise an advanced market commitment for existing proven technologies for reducing carbon emissions (for example for the global replacement of incandescent bulbs with LEDs). He cursorily dismisses the role of divesting because they have limited effect – though Gates did divest his direct holding from oil and gas.
Gates invests $5 million a year to mitigate his family’s carbon footprint. If all things are equal – wealth, access, carbon footprint – a Volkswagen driver would be doing enough simply by protecting one neighbourhood tree. Equity and rights are not the strong points of Gates’s thesis. Putting a price on everything so permeates our lives that we barely notice the free, life-giving services of nature anymore. Gates laments that farmers in developing countries like India need to adopt tractors and new technologies to feed billions. But if Jawaharlal Nehru and Mao Zedong had mechanised their country’s agriculture in the 1940s and 1950s, the climate crisis would have been at our doorsteps far sooner – perhaps even before we might have known what caused it, and we would have been even less prepared than we are now.
The fundamental premise of the book, that we need to reach net-zero emissions using a portfolio of technofixes, is also a bit misleading. We need to adopt strategies to become significantly net-negative because we also need to harvest our historical carbon dioxide emissions and prepare a buffer for future climate shocks. (Gates wisely mentions unexpected methane release and volcanism.) This moment in history is an opportunity to repair ecosystems, and I was hoping to find a mention of the link between the damage to ecosystems and the emergence of COVID-19 in the book’s afterword, ‘Climate Change and COVID-19’, but it is missing.
The climate crisis is not a single problem – that of greenhouse gas emissions alone – but a multifaceted one that we need to address on multiple fronts. Some are known and visible (the weakening of major ocean currents, collapsing ice shelfs, fires in the Arctic) and others which barely find a mention (depleting soil productivity, acidification of oceans). There can be no single fix for climate change.
To mend it, we need to involve the more than four billion citizens (or 52% of the world’s population) of our planet comprising indigenous people, forest dwellers, subsistence farmers, pastoralists and fisher folk who depend on nature for their livelihoods. Gates recognises that billions of people are prone to climate shocks but fails to tell the reader of how the challenge of climate refugees who arrive into cities or cross borders will be mitigated. As we march on with our daily lives, we are pushing more and more people to the brink: for more lithium to run electric vehicles, we are destroying lands and the water of indigenous people in Peru; for the coltan which powers our mobile phones, we have driven local communities in the Congo to near slavery and their forests to ruins.
Perhaps this can be the moment to call for a debate on the moral question of who decides what the future strategies for the planet should be. Science can provide answers only if we are willing to understand its several perspectives. Objective science, inclusive of all disciplines, must demarcate the negotiables from the non-negotiables as we chart our future course. Economic opportunities that arise for future markets must not only serve a few private beneficiaries but must be distributed as a global public good.
It is only through public debate that every nation and its people can become more aware of the price we pay for living in a society where everything is up for sale. This book was a bestseller even before it reached the stands, as it should be, but I would urge Mr Gates to include a note for nature and its services in the next edition. If we choose to ignore nature, we will do so at the cost of our very existence.
Pranay Lal writes on natural history and is the author of Indica – A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent (2016). He is currently writing a book on the natural history of viruses, due to be released in the summer of 2021.