“We have been tilting at microbes for too long, and created a world that is hostile to the ones we need.”
— Ed Yong
When I worked at Microsoft, it was always a thrill to see a product we’d been working on for years finally get released to the public. I’m feeling the same sense of anticipation today. My new book on climate change is available now online and in bookstores.
I wrote How to Avoid a Climate Disaster because I think we’re at a crucial moment. I’ve seen exciting progress in the more than 15 years that I’ve been learning about energy and climate change. The cost of renewable energy from the sun and wind has dropped dramatically. There’s more public support for taking big steps to avoid a climate disaster than ever before. And governments and companies around the world are setting ambitious goals for reducing emissions.
What we need now is a plan that turns all this momentum into practical steps to achieve our big goals. That’s what How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is: a plan for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.
I kept the jargon to a minimum because I wanted the book to be accessible to everyone who cares about this issue. I didn’t assume that readers know anything about energy or climate change, though if you do, I hope it will deepen your understanding of this incredibly complex topic. I also included ways in which everyone can contribute—whether you’re a political leader, an entrepreneur, an inventor, a voter, or an individual who wants to know how you can help.
The effort I founded called Breakthrough Energy, which started with a venture fund to invest in promising clean energy companies, has expanded to a network of philanthropic programs, investment funds, and advocacy efforts to accelerate energy innovation at every step. We’ll be supporting great thinkers and cutting-edge technologies and businesses, as well as pushing for public- and private-sector policies that will speed up the clean energy transition. Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be turning the ideas in my book into action and trying to turn this plan into reality.
Below is an excerpt from the introduction, which gives you a sense of what the book is about and how I came to write it. I hope you’ll check out the book, but much more important, I hope you’ll do what you can to help us keep the planet livable for generations to come.
Two decades ago, I would never have predicted that one day I would be talking in public about climate change, much less writing a book about it. My background is in software, not climate science, and these days my full-time job is working with my wife, Melinda, at the Gates Foundation, where we are super-focused on global health, development, and U.S. education.
I came to focus on climate change in an indirect way—through the problem of energy poverty.
In the early 2000s, when our foundation was just starting out, I began traveling to low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia so I could learn more about child mortality, HIV, and the other big problems we were working on. But my mind was not always on diseases. I would fly into major cities, look out the window, and think, Why is it so dark out there? Where are all the lights I’d see if this were New York, Paris, or Beijing?
I learned that about a billion people didn’t have reliable access to electricity and that half of them lived in sub-Saharan Africa. (The picture has improved a bit since then; today roughly 860 million people don’t have electricity.) I began to think about how the world could make energy affordable and reliable for the poor. It didn’t make sense for our foundation to take on this huge problem—we needed it to stay focused on its core mission—but I started kicking around ideas with some inventor friends of mine.
In late 2006 I met with two former Microsoft colleagues who were starting nonprofits focused on energy and climate. They brought along two climate scientists who were well versed in the issues, and the four of them showed me the data connecting greenhouse gas emissions to climate change.
I knew that greenhouse gases were making the temperature rise, but I had assumed that there were cyclical variations or other factors that would naturally prevent a true climate disaster. And it was hard to accept that as long as humans kept emitting any amount of greenhouse gases, temperatures would keep going up.
I went back to the group several times with follow-up questions. Eventually it sank in. The world needs to provide more energy so the poorest can thrive, but we need to provide that energy without releasing any more greenhouse gases.
Now the problem seemed even harder. It wasn’t enough to deliver cheap, reliable energy for the poor. It also had to be clean.
Within a few years, I had become convinced of three things:
The case for zero was, and is, rock solid. Setting a goal to only reduce our emissions—but not eliminate them—won’t do it. The only sensible goal is zero.
This book suggests a way forward, a series of steps we can take to give ourselves the best chance to avoid a climate disaster. It breaks down into five parts:
Why zero? In chapter 1, I’ll explain more about why we need to get to zero, including what we know (and what we don’t) about how rising temperatures will affect people around the world.
The bad news: Getting to zero will be really hard. Because every plan to achieve anything starts with a realistic assessment of the barriers that stand in your way, in chapter 2 we’ll take a moment to consider the challenges we’re up against.
How to have an informed conversation about climate change. In chapter 3, I’ll cut through some of the confusing statistics you might have heard and share the handful of questions I keep in mind in every conversation I have about climate change. They have kept me from going wrong more times than I can count, and I hope they will do the same for you.
The good news: We can do it. In chapters 4 through 9, I’ll break down the areas where today’s technology can help and where we need breakthroughs. This will be the longest part of the book, because there’s so much to cover. We have some solutions we need to deploy in a big way now, and we also need a lot of innovations to be developed and spread around the world in the next few decades.
Steps we can take now. I wrote this book because I see not just the problem of climate change; I also see an opportunity to solve it. That’s not pie-in-the-sky optimism. We already have two of the three things you need to accomplish any major undertaking. First, we have ambition, thanks to the passion of a growing global movement led by young people who are deeply concerned about climate change. Second, we have big goals for solving the problem as more national and local leaders around the world commit to doing their part.
Now we need the third component: a concrete plan to achieve our goals.
Just as our ambitions have been driven by an appreciation for climate science, any practical plan for reducing emissions has to be driven by other disciplines: physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, political science, economics, finance, and more. So in the final chapters of this book, I’ll propose a plan based on guidance I’ve gotten from experts in all these disciplines. In chapters 10 and 11, I’ll focus on policies that governments can adopt; in chapter 12, I’ll suggest steps that each of us can take to help the world get to zero. Whether you’re a government leader, an entrepreneur, or a voter with a busy life and too little free time (or all of the above), there are things you can do to help avoid a climate disaster.
That’s it. Let’s get started.