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This book made me realise that I really didn’t know anything about climate change and what can be done.
“How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” was written by Bill Gates and published in 2021, making it hyper-relevant to what’s going on today. It even talks about coronavirus.
TL;DR - The book is a great crash course on climate change because it outlines the root causes of greenhouse gas emissions and the technology needed to get to net-zero. I recommend this book.
Broadly, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” talks about the status of our climate and the key areas that we need to focus on to avoid a climate disaster.
Gates starts by outlining the climate situation that is currently going on and talks about the amount of greenhouse gas humans emit around the world.
The book then goes on to talk about the five primary sources of carbon emissions and the technologies that need to be developed to reduce the emissions from these sources.
He concludes the book with actions governments and people can take to be prepared for climate change and to make a difference toward reducing global carbon emissions.
My praise and critique
First, I love Bill Gates’s brutal honesty and optimism that he uses to almost simultaneously contradict himself. For example, when talking about achieving net zero, he says: “the bad news: Getting to zero will be really hard” and “The good news: We can do it”.
On one hand, reading this book was frustrating because it made me realize - yet again - just how massive the climate challenge is. On the other hand, when the guy who started Microsoft tells you that the technologies to mitigate and reverse climate change can be invented, funded and deployed, it reaffirms my faith in our ability to achieve carbon neutrality and eventually to reverse climate change.
Second, I really enjoyed that the book is organised logically. From the very beginning, Gates starts with the problem and a clear focus for the book center around. The first sentences of the book are:
There are two numbers you need to know about climate change. The first is 51 billion. The other is zero.
Fifty-one billion is how many tons of greenhouse gases the world typically adds to the atmosphere every year. Although the figure may go up or down a bit from year to year, it’s generally increasing. This is where we are today.
Zero is what we need to aim for. To stop the warming and avoid the worst effects of climate change--and these effects will be very bad--humans need to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
These three paragraphs distil the entire climate change concept into two numbers and the book always comes back to these figures. It makes it easy to understand what we need to focus on when thinking about and discussing climate change.
Third, I like that the book breaks down each source of carbon emissions into five categories:
- How we plug in
- How we make things
- How we grow things
- How we get around
- How we keep cool and stay warm
Each one of these is a major contributor to carbon emissions and Gates explains exactly how and why. He also explains in each section what the options currently are for reducing the emissions from each of these sources.
Gates also outlines companies that are currently working on solutions to solve the problems. For example, when discussing plant-based meat as an alternative to beef cows, which produce a lot of greenhouse gas, Gates mentions the work of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. It’s great to learn about various organizations and Sustainability Champions around the world working toward solutions.
In my opinion, these five sections were by far the most interesting and helpful toward my understanding of the climate crisis and the solutions needed. There was a lot I didn’t understand before reading this book.
My biggest critique is that the book kind of reads like a school textbook. Meaning, it’s a bit dry. Objectively, the information is extremely valuable and Gates does a great job of writing in a novice-friendly way, but I noticed that I needed to read the book somewhere quiet where there were no distractions so I could focus. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to absorb what was on the page.
I found it dry because the language and writing style was a bit too technical for my taste. I’m not very technical, so at some points, it felt like Gates was getting a just too much in the weeds. This was particularly noticeable in the five chapters about the carbon emission categories mentioned earlier. Here’s an example:
The process of making hydrogen (called electrolysis) also requires various materials (known as electrolyzers) that are quite costly. In California, where cars that run on fuel cells are now available, the cost of hydrogen is equivalent to paying $5.60 a gallon for gasoline. So scientists are experimenting with cheaper materials that could serve as electrolyzers.
I can tell that Gates is writing the above paragraph from a 50,000-foot view, but even re-reading the paragraph above makes my eyes glaze over a bit and I need to really focus.
You could definitely make the argument that climate change and achieving net-zero is a scientific and technological discussion. So it is necessary for the author to get a little technical in order to explain the subject. And I agree with you 100%. But I still found the book a bit dry and it was a bit tricky to focus while reading it.
Gates clearly did his best to simplify the language he was using so that it wouldn’t go too technical and that certainly helps. But as I was reading it, I was still wishing that the technical details were somehow presented in a more interesting way.
Would I recommend this book?
Yes. Definitely read this book, if you haven’t already. I think it’s important for everyone to understand the basics and get a strong foundation of what the situation is with our climate as well as some of the options and opportunities we have as solutions available to us.
It is an excellent crash course and ideal for someone who wants a better understanding of the challenges of climate change and what is required for us to solve these issues.
My critique about the book being too dry or technical is not a reason to avoid reading it. I imagine those of you who are technically inclined will probably disagree with my opinion.
If you’re not technically inclined, I wouldn’t let my opinion prevent you from reading it because the understanding you will gain will be well worth it.
I give this book 4 out of 5 stars. If it were written in a more interesting and perhaps less technical way, I would give it a strong 5 out of 5, but the fact that it was a bit difficult to read is the only reason why I’m withholding the final star.
If you haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, you can get your copy on Amazon here.
What did you think of the book? Do you agree or disagree with my review? Let me know in the comments below!