You may have seen some of the media interviews Bill Gates has been doing recently to promote his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster:
details the transformation necessary to reverse the effects of decades of catastrophic practices. We need, Gates calculates, to remove 51bn tonnes of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere every year. Failing to do so would cost more than the 1.5 million lives already lost to Covid-19 and could cause, he calculates, five times more deaths than the Spanish flu a century ago."
The article in the url below sums up the book and the coverage he has been getting pretty well, as well as highlighting the limits to Gates' argument. In short, the article makes clear that the constraints we face are not technical or scientific, but human:
"… we have to ask why, when what needs to be done seems obvious, we have been so slow to act. And why … has the world simply failed to come together?"
The solutions Gates provides in the book are, for the most part, technical. But, because the problem we face is essentially a human one, then it is a human solution that we must look for:
"Seemingly unanswerable scientific evidence can be torpedoed by powerful vested interests, or sidelined by bureaucratic indifference, or undermined by weak and incompetent political leaderships that make commitments they do not honour. Or they can be sabotaged by geopolitical rivalries or simply by nations clinging to old-fashioned and absolutist views of national sovereignty. As a result, the multilateral cooperation necessary to deal with a global problem does not emerge, and the very real tensions between economic and environmental priorities, and between the developed and developing world, go unresolved."
Gates has weighed-in publicly on the world's problems before (in addition to the wonderful behind-the-scenes work done by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), most notably in his 2008 Davos speech on "creative capitalism" (see Strategic CSR – Bill Gates). But, what I think Gates misses is that the world is not dominated by automaton technocrats, like himself, but is instead made up of very human individuals who make decisions for all kinds of reasons that, often, have little to do with the most rational or scientific or technical option. The article gets at that by pointing out that there are all kinds of reasons why the 'correct' decision will not be made in many/most scenarios (even when self-destruction is a viable option). This quote in the article struck me as being the core of the problem (and what Gates doesn't seem to see):
"Taken together these [technical] measures could meet the world's objective of net carbon zero. But if politics was simply the application of reason and science to contemporary challenges, we might have not only solved the climate crisis by now but easily cured Covid-19 and other infectious diseases too."
In other words, the article highlights the limits of technology in a world dominated by human decision making. But, unfortunately, having identified this very real barrier to progress, the author of the article (who was Prime Minister of the UK from 2007 to 2010) then falls into exactly the same trap he accuses Gates of falling into. Rather than proposing a set of technological and scientific solutions, he proposes a purely political set of solutions, but fails to address the much stronger forces that are set against radical change:
"But to operationalise the Paris agreement – to limit warming to 1.5 degrees – requires countries to halve their CO2 emissions by 2030. So vested interests like big oil will have to be enlisted for change. The populist nationalist and protectionist rhetoric of irresponsible demagogues will have to be taken head on. And supporters of a stronger set of commitments will have to show why sharing sovereignty is in every nation's self-interest, and that coordinated global action is indeed the only way to end the mismatch between the scale of the environmental problems we face and our current capacity to solve them. Success will come by demonstrating that the real power countries can wield to create a better world is not the power they can exercise others but the power they can exercise others."
Yes, identifying the end result is easy, and asking for the world to cooperate is logical. What is much harder is explaining exactly how each of these valid goals will be achieved in a human world. One reason why firms do not develop more meaningful sustainability policies is that key stakeholders are unwilling to support the implementation of such policies, especially in terms of paying the accompanying costs. Similarly, of course, a major reason why politicians do not advocate for more radical sustainability laws is that many voters will not vote for them. The most ridiculous argument I have seen made against a carbon tax is that it will push up prices for fuel and electricity. Yes, that is exactly the point. It is supposed to push up prices because that is how we reduce consumption. But, that does not mean that voters are willing to pay those higher prices. And, if they are not willing to pay them, then they are unlikely to vote for the politicians who proposed them. Hence, no carbon tax.
Until we, collectively, agree we are willing to pay the costs associated with switching to a more sustainable lifestyle, I do not see how we can move fast enough to make the changes that need to be made.
© Sage Publications, 2020
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How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates review – why science isn't enough
By Gordon Brown
February 17, 2021