NY Times Review of Bill Gates Climate Book Considered Harmful
I was disappointed to read the NY Times Review of Bill Gates’ book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need. It dismisses Gates as a rich geek with limited knowledge on the subject, but in trying to stick to this storyline fails to grasp the incredible thoughtful and nuanced arguments made in this book. This is particularly sad because the reviewer seems to genuinely care (and know a lot) about climate, but his superficial review probably detracted many NY Times readers from picking up the book.
The reviewer describes the book as a “ little underwhelming”, but his main argument rests on the claim that Gates overestimates the cost (a.k.a. the green premium) of solar power. Solar power is just one of the myriad subjects discussed in the book, but the reviewer blows it out of proportion, failing to notice the forest for the trees. Even if Gates’ estimates of green premiums for solar power were outdated (the Times review cites a statement made by an analyst to claim this, but does not provide the citation to the source or links to scientific papers or other reputable sources), this does not undermine the key argument he makes about solar (and wind) energy, which is: they are essential to the comprehensive climate solution, but we need other technologies in addition to them to get to zero.
Gates explains this in Chapter 4 (at around 15 m 56 seconds in my Audible version) that solar and wind must continue to be part of the climate solution, but their key limitations are intermittency and space consumption. When the sun stops shining, the electricity stops running. To deal with intermittency we need to store energy for later use, but Gates argues the batteries are expensive. Here again, the reviewer claims that battery prices are dropping on a sharp curve (but does not cite any sources to support his claim). Again, let’s suppose the reviewer is correct. Still, he fails to discuss the second limitation: space. Installing solar and wind farms requires lots of space. Storing intermittent power in batteries for later use also requires space. The chart in the book shows that solar power produces 5–20 Watts per square meter (with theoretical density that could reach 100) and wind power sources produce 1–2 Watts, while nuclear power, for example, provides 500–1000. The reviewer states that “it’s clear that the imperative is to install as much solar [..] as fast as humanly possible”, but fails to notice that Gates does NOT argue against that point. What he does argue is that “humanly possible” might not be enough because we might not have enough space, etc. And so in addition to (but not instead of) of solar and wind, we need other technologies that will supply the balance where the solar and wind fall short.
Another huge point that the reviewer misses is Gates’ argument that a narrow focus on technologies that can bring short-term (even if substantial) improvements in GHG emissions at the expense of the solutions that will get us to zero in the longer run (by 2050) could be the wrong strategy. The example that Gates makes is that while replacing coal plants with natural gas could substantially reduce emissions by 2030, this would be the wrong strategy, because this will NOT get us to zero by 2050. So instead of building new gas plants, we need to build zero-carbon alternatives. The reviewer says “(with solar) almost every country on earth could go to 80 percent renewable energy by 2030”. And here again, he misses the point. Gates is not advocating divesting from solar. He is advocating that in addition to solar we need other breakthroughs, and narrowly focusing on one technology that could get us 80% there while ignoring those that could give us the remaining 20% could be disastrous.
The final point is politics, where according to reviewer Gates “really wears blinders”, taking out of context his quote “I think more like an engineer than a political scientist” . And this is where I start suspecting that the reviewer did not read the book in its entirety. The entire Chapter 10, conspicuously entitled “Why Government Policies Matter” is dedicated to discussing the role of government and politics in avoiding the climate disaster and what each of us can do to influence the adoption of the right policies (Chapter 12). The reviewer crucifies Gates for not discussing the subject of oil companies lying about climate change, but there are other wonderful books written on this topic, and eschewing it in his book does not prevent Gates from making his main point: “the solutions we have and the breakthroughs we need”.
I really hope that more people pick up How to Avoid a Climate Disaster and digest its thoughtul and nuanced arguments.