Bill Gates has been an ardent supporter of initiatives to tackle climate change, and his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, spells out what he believes the world should focus on to speed up its efforts to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions.
Gates, who was the co-founder of Microsoft Corporation, has focused his efforts in recent years with his wife, Melinda Gates, to promote social justice and global health initiatives through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. With the threat of climate change becoming more pronounced than ever, the foundation began funding research into various technologies that could aid in the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Gates’ central thesis of How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is that humans must stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Given the complexity of understanding how certain actions — whether committed by individuals, corporations, or governments — can stand in the way of our work to achieve net zero emissions, we rounded up the five biggest takeaways of Bill Gates’ new book that will help you recognize why climate change is this century’s most pressing issue.
1. Poor countries will be hit the hardest (and they already are).
Natural disasters are becoming more intense due to climate change, displacing millions of people from their homes and posing a threat to livelihoods around the world as farmland is damaged by historic floods, droughts, and heat waves. A sobering fact is that the world’s poorest nations, which lack sufficient resources to adapt to climate change, will be the most affected, despite having contributed the least to global warming.
“The climate is changing in ways that will be problematic for relatively well-off farmers in America and Europe, but potentially deadly for low-income ones in Africa and Asia,” Gates writes.
This is not simply a problem for the future, and Gates provides plenty of examples of poorer nations already experiencing the consequences of a changing climate today. Bangladesh, for one, is already plagued by rising sea levels that have forced over 30% of the country underwater during flooding, killing crops and people.
Despite being hit the hardest by climate change, low-income nations are not responsible for causing a majority of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and cannot be further held back by being forced to adopt the same policies as wealthier nations, says Gates.
“We can’t expect poor people to stay poor because rich countries emitted too many greenhouse gases,” Gates writes. “Instead, we need to make it possible for low-income people to climb the ladder without making climate change worse.”
How can we achieve this? One suggestion from Gates is by making Green Premiums — the additional cost of choosing a clean technology over one that emits more greenhouse gases — affordable for low-income countries to implement clean technology.
2. Innovation, and massive investment, will help us develop clean technology.
One of the reasons why taking action on climate change is such a difficult sell is because it is a huge undertaking and will require innovation to develop what we need to get to net zero emissions. Rich countries may shy away from the massive amount of capital that must be invested before the world sees any payoffs, but Gates sees this as an economic opportunity.
“The countries that build great zero-carbon companies and industries will be the ones that lead the global economy in the coming decades,” Gates writes. “Whoever makes big energy breakthroughs and shows they can work on a global scale, and be affordable, will find many willing customers in emerging economies.”
While he writes about a number of products that have the potential to reduce our carbon footprints — such as a technology that can capture the carbon dioxide released during the cement-making process — Gates also acknowledges current sectors the world can invest in, such as clean energy sources.
The UK has made strides at generating more electricity from renewable energy sources than the burning of fossil fuels, showing that investment can help achieve the goal of net zero emissions. But Gates also points to nuclear power as a way to make clean energy as cheap and reliable as fossil fuels, so that low- and middle-income countries have the opportunity to implement them, too.
The big debate about nuclear energy has to do with safety concerns. Proponents argue that it uses less land and is more reliable than any other clean energy source, while others say that nuclear waste is too dangerous to justify expanding nuclear energy.
Gates points to several ways that research and development can improve clean energy sources, particularly nuclear energy, so that they can be used concurrently. Investing in innovative technologies will be a gamble but can help countries optimize their use of clean energy and use materials efficiently and safely.
3. Governments must implement policies to encourage green living.
Private companies cannot be the only ones doing the work to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions. Governments need to change and implement policies to encourage innovation and clean technology.
Gates points to deforestation as one example of where policy can combat climate change.
“People cut down trees not because people are evil; they do it when the incentives to cut down trees are stronger than the incentives to leave them alone,” he writes. “So we need political and economic solutions, including paying countries to maintain their forests, enforcing rules designed to protect certain areas, and making sure rural communities have different economic opportunities so they don’t have to extract natural resources just to survive.”
Climate change must be factored into policy decisions, from deciding how to support farmers who are most impacted by a changing environment to encouraging the sale of electric vehicles. Policy can also make implementing clean technologies the logical choice for companies.
Gates writes that raising the cost of fossil fuels by incorporating the damage they cause to the environment into their cost will encourage people to pursue clean technologies that will be more beneficial in the long run.
4. We need to get comfortable with change.
One of the biggest points made in How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is that fossil fuels are everywhere, as are processes that result in copious amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. To truly combat climate change, everyone in the world will need to change their mindsets and behavior.
Technology can offset food waste, such as a “smart bin” that can report on an individual’s carbon footprint based on the food they threw away. Eating less meat can also have a big impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions as more people pursue vegetarian diets and plant-based meats.
5. We need to talk to everyone we know.
Gates emphasizes that the world must make climate action a priority today, otherwise the effects we are already experiencing will get worse.
“The earth is warming; it’s warming because of human activity, and the impact is bad and will get much worse. We have every reason to believe that at some point the impact will be catastrophic,” Gates writes. “Will that point come in 30 years? 50 years? We don’t know precisely. But given how hard the problem will be to solve, even if the worst case is 50 years away, we need to act now.”
Young people will be, and already are, the driving force in the fight against climate change, but they cannot do it alone. Citizens all over the world need to engage with their governments to demand action, from more investment in clean energy to raising the cost of products that emit a lot of greenhouse gases.
In order to make significant progress, though, people have to talk about the threat of climate change with their friends and family members, too. When enough people learn about the effects of climate change and the steps we can take to combat it, change will be inevitable.
Let this last point be the biggest takeaway from How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Without global participation, no one will be able to achieve net zero emissions.
To take action to defend the planet, you can join our Recovery Plan for the World campaign, which is rallying governments, businesses, and individuals to address the urgent crises of COVID-19, climate change, education, nutrition, and more.
Disclosure: Bill Gates is the co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a funding partner of Global Citizen.
Editor's note: This piece has been updated to include a disclosure that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen. We regret the oversight.