By Andy May
Bill Gates just published a new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. He begins his book with the assertion that “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.” He continues that every country will need to change its ways and every activity in the modern lifestyle involves releasing greenhouse houses, so every person must change. He then warns us that if we keep on living the way we do, the impact of all of this will be catastrophic.
Following this, Gates explains that over 800 million people in the world do not have electricity and cook and heat their homes with wood or other combustibles. He reminds us that income, health, and prosperity are all dependent upon energy consumption, the more energy we consume, the better off and healthier we are.
These are the two problems he is addressing; poverty and the fear of some catastrophe caused by our greenhouse emissions. He argues we emit 51 billion tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases per year and must reduce this to zero. Later he admits this is impossible and he means “near net zero.” He also admits that wind and solar will not work because they are intermittent and battery backup for them is too expensive.
He was encouraged to sell his investments in fossil fuel companies, but he did not think it was fair to tell the world’s poor that they could not have the cheapest energy available. He decided at that time, that the only solution was to make clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels. Fossil fuel energy is a five trillion dollar per year industry and the basis for the world’s modern economy. However, regardless of his conclusion that the poor need fossil fuels, he divested from oil and gas, but admits it was an emotional personal decision, not a rational decision.
By 2015, Gates noticed that private investment in clean energy was drying up. The return on investment was low, negative in some cases. Solyndra went bankrupt in 2011 and Gates lost $50 million on a cellulosic ethanol company. Making matters worse, government energy company (clean or otherwise) regulations and paperwork are overwhelming and expensive. So, Gates contacted some other wealthy people and formed Breakthrough Energy, a philanthropy to invest in private clean energy research.
Gates tells us that during the COVID pandemic, a million people died, tens of millions were put out of work, and all nonessential travel was halted, yet, greenhouse gas emissions only went down 5%. He was shocked at how small the reduction was after such an event. He came to realize how difficult getting to zero was, this was not going to be a matter of driving and flying less.
In chapter one Gates explains why he believes we need to get to zero emissions. He makes his first mistake in the very first paragraph. He claims that 20% of the carbon dioxide emitted today will still be in the atmosphere 10,000 years later. This not true, the average lifetime of fossil fuel CO2 in the atmosphere is only 4 to 5 years and the half-life of CO2 emissions is only 3.5 years (Poyet, 2020, pp. 20-21).
Gates’ explanation of the greenhouse effect is the popular one, which is physically incorrect. He says greenhouse gases “trap” heat like a greenhouse, or a car parked in the sun. The main reason the car and greenhouse get hot is they restrict air circulation. If you open a window in either one, they will get cooler. The atmospheric greenhouse effect is different than a greenhouse, for a better explanation that is physically correct, see here.
Later in Chapter 1, Gates explains why he thinks greenhouse gas emissions will lead to a climate catastrophe in 30 to 50 years. He believes that temperatures will rise 1.5 to 3 degrees by 2050 and 4 to 8 degrees by the end of the century. He doesn’t specify units, but presumably he means degrees Fahrenheit. Gates imprecision when discussing climate science is not encouraging. This reader gets the impression that Gates has not studied the science in any depth, his knowledge of the topic seems very superficial.
His discussion of what will happen if temperatures warm over the next century are the conventional litany of more extreme weather, more droughts, more floods, etc. But it is well known that weather has not become more extreme, droughts and flooding have not become worse, and might have lessened in their severity. For sure, weather related deaths and losses, as a percent of GDP, have declined in the modern era as shown by Dr. Roger Pielke and others. You can read more about serious studies of weather-related disasters over time here.
Gates believes that global warming will cause sea level to rise and this will cause a catastrophe. Sea level has been rising since civilization began, as can be seen in Figure 1.
In Figure 1, Robert Rohde shows us that the rate of sea level rise was much faster in the past and is quite moderate today, roughly 2 to 3 millimeters per year or less than a foot (30 cm) per century. Sea level changes have happened throughout Earth’s history and will always happen. Humans have always adapted to them successfully, and we fully expect humans to adapt in the future. For a more in-depth discussion see here.
Gates claims that higher temperatures and more CO2 will limit the geographic range of animals and plants and reduce food production. He thinks that overall food production will drop in the future due to climate change, growing seasons will shrink, and food prices will rise.
In fact, the evidence tells us the opposite. As explained here, net primary plant productivity has increased over 20% since 1961 and 70% of the growth is due to more CO2, most of the rest is due to an increase in arable land and longer growing seasons due to higher temperatures. Dr. Craig Idso has calculated that the additional productivity has added $3.2 trillion to the world economy. The evidence tells us that Gates and his source, the IPCC or the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have it backwards.
Gates goes on to say that fish and animals will be less productive in warmer temperatures, which is the opposite of what occurs in nature. Fish and animals are less productive in colder times and in the winter than they are in warmer times during the summer. Studies have verified that the summer months in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres are more productive than winter for fish and animals (Sigman, 2012).
Gates then goes on to list numerous catastrophes predicted by IPCC computer simulations. He ignores the data and relies only upon computer simulations of what might happen in the future. Worse the IPCC simulations he relies upon are fed the output of computer climate models, thus Gates is using models of model output to tell us what he thinks will happen in the future. Data all around him is saying the opposite, but he believes the models of model output. Why does Bill Gates, a very bright person, confuse computer simulations with reality?
It is well known that the climate models used by the IPCC do not match observations. In fact, Ross McKitrick and John Christy have shown that they fail a critical test in the middle tropical troposphere. The tropical region between 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south is their chosen test area, this is where all climate models predict the middle troposphere will warm faster than the surface. Yet, every model fails to match observations in this region. The recent BAMS (Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society) State of the Climate Report (Blunden & Arndt, 2020) contains the graph shown in Figure 2.
In Figure 2 the heavy red line and red boxes show the average model temperature increase from the IPCC climate models. The range encompassing all models is shown with dashed red lines. The heavy green line is the average of observations over the same period and individual observations are shown with light blue, yellow, green, and purple symbols. All climate models predict excess warming in the boxed region between 9.2 km and 11.7 km (300 hPa and 200 hPa) altitude if greenhouse gases are a factor in global warming. Yet, as shown in Ross McKitrick and John Christy’s 2018 paper (McKitrick & Christy, 2018), in this critical region, the models do not overlap the observations if the greenhouse gas effect is included in the model. If the greenhouse gas effect is excluded from the model, the models match observations. McKitrick and Christy tell us that this test invalidates the climate models, and shows they are exaggerating the warming impact of greenhouse gases.
For our purposes here, we need to understand that observations do not support Gates conclusions. His conclusions are based solely on faulty model predictions. Gates believes that global warming will raise mortality. But, the data show clearly that weather related deaths are decreasing extremely rapidly today and there will be far fewer deaths due to cold in a possible warmer future than any excess deaths due to warm weather.
We believe that adapting to climate change, as humans have always done, is the best approach, Gates disagrees. Mitigating the release of greenhouse gases, as Bill Gates suggests, should only be attempted if it is shown that greenhouse gases are the cause of dangerous global warming. Ross McKitrick and John Christy have shown that this speculative idea is likely incorrect (McKitrick & Christy, 2018).
In the next chapter Gates emphasizes the importance of fossil fuels today and how difficult it will be to displace them with a new energy source. Fossil fuels are the basis of our economy and prosperity. Gates observes that to replace them, the new energy source will have to be cheaper than fossil fuels and just as easy to transport and use. Gates also believes that the change he wants will require new technology, taxes, and government mandates.
In Chapter 3 he shows us where greenhouse gases come from. The top sources are making cement, steel and plastic (31%), electricity (27%), farming (19%), transportation (16%), and heating, cooling and refrigeration (7%). Then he introduces the concept of “green premiums,” which is Gates’ name for green energy subsidies and carbon taxes. He is in favor of both.
In Chapter 4 he discusses electricity. He notes that in the United States we only spend 2% of our GDP on electricity, which is amazing considering how dependent we are on it. Electricity is 200 times more affordable today than it was in 1900, it is so cheap because fossil fuels are cheap. Fossil fuels provided 62% of the electricity used in the world in 2020. Gates estimates that the U.S. could reach his goal of net-zero emissions by increasing the cost of electricity 15%. This seems too low compared to other estimates, see here and here for more details. Germany has been trying to achieve a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and currently pays three times the U.S. rate for their electricity.
Gates discusses various ways to make electricity, but all are far too expensive or too intermittent to be practical, except for nuclear. There are some promising new nuclear options under development that may replace fossil fuels in the future, but nothing, except conventional fission that can be used today. The regulations and permitting required to build nuclear power plants are so onerous as to effectively make them impossible to build.
Chapter 5 discusses products that are made from fossil fuels, like cement, fertilizer, plastic, and steel. Making these products produces the largest amount of CO2 as mentioned above. Yet, we will not stop using any of them, in fact, Gates estimates that as the world becomes more prosperous, we will likely need much more of them. There may be no way to make these products without emitting CO2, but Gates discusses some interesting technologies that can reduce the CO2 produced. One interesting fact, all the newer technologies he discusses use much, much more electricity than we use today.
In Chapter 6 Gates discusses fertilizer and how important it is but only barely mentions CO2 fertilization, which seems a contradiction. He also recommends biofuels, but complains about deforestation, which is a byproduct of producing wood pellets to replace coal in powerplants. We find it odd that Gates and many others distinguish between burning fossil fuels and burning wood or other biofuels. Most biofuels produce more actual pollutants, such as oxides of nitrogen and sulfur than fossil fuels and at least as much CO2. Why the CO2 from biofuels is somehow different than the CO2 from fossil fuels escapes this author’s understanding.
In Chapter 7 he discusses transportation, which produces 16% of the CO2 humans emit to the atmosphere. The only thing that can eliminate those direct emissions is switching to electric cars. Currently that makes little difference since 62% of our electricity comes from fossil fuels, but Gates is hypothesizing that we can eventually make electricity without fossil fuels. So, he compares a Chevrolet Bolt to a Chevrolet Malibu. Taking everything into account, the Bolt, which costs $16,000 more than the Malibu, costs 10 cents more per mile to operate. This is a serious amount of money to most people. Gates speculates that in the future the differential will be smaller, perhaps through government subsidies, taxes, or mandates.
Biofuels will be important for ships and aircraft in Gates’ transportation plan. But, as he admits, biofuels are not environmentally friendly. They require a large amount of arable land; they raise food prices and require a lot of fertilizer. Further, the CO2 emitted when they are burned is identical to the CO2 emitted by fossil fuels and biofuels produce more dangerous pollution. The hypothesis that biofuel CO2 will simply go back into another plant, seems a bit silly, since the fossil fuel CO2 can also go into the same plant, and without cutting down a valuable tree or turning food into ethanol.
Gates would also like the world to consider nuclear-powered ships, even though it could be dangerous.
In Chapter 8 Gates suggests switching from natural gas heating to electricity so that when electricity is switched from fossil fuels to other green energy sources, all heating and cooling will be fossil fuel free. He also encourages the use of heat pumps where practical.
In Chapter 9 Gates discusses methods to adapt to climate changes. He makes a point that in todays world, foreign aid to the poorest countries is being rerouted into climate areas. Gates does not want money for vaccines, health and nutrition rerouted to green energy. In this, he has this author’s full agreement. It is very unfortunate, but for political reasons less money is being spent helping the poor in the third world adapt to climate changes, it is instead being diverted to green energy.
Gates also discusses various new crops being developed by agricultural companies that increase yields for third-world farmers. Oddly, he does not mention that additional CO2 in the atmosphere makes most crops much more drought resistant, since with additional available CO2 they need much less water per pound of growth.
Chapter 10 is a plea for more government intervention in the private sector. Gates also wants more government R&D money. This author is opposed to this idea and believes that government funding of scientific research has corrupted science. The author has discussed this topic in much more detail in his book, Politics and Climate Change: a History (May, 2020c). Gates is also a believer in government subsidies to “guide” the public to fossil fuel free energy.
He briefly discusses the impact of destroying the fossil fuel industry, which supports more than ten million jobs in the United States. These high paying jobs will be replaced with much lower paying jobs in the green energy sector or in the service sector. He mentions this but offers no solutions.
In Chapter 11 Gates admits that trying to get to zero emissions by 2030 is impossible. But then he offers the equally impossible goal of 2050. Exxon projects that oil, gas and coal will supply 76% of the world’s energy in 2040 in their 2019 Outlook for Energy, how that can get to zero by 2050 is beyond this author’s understanding. Most of the rest of Chapter 11 is a plea for governments to grab more power and take over ever larger parts of the private sector so they can force the public to help them destroy the fossil fuel industry. He calls for action by “all levels of government, from local transportation planners to national legislatures and environmental regulators.”
In Chapter 12 he asks that all individuals lobby their governments and employers to help in this crusade to destroy the fossil fuel industry.
Bill Gates is obviously a bright person, he built Microsoft and was a great innovator. But this book is disappointing. Gates has clearly not studied climate science, he just assumes the IPCC reports and models are correct. Then he accepts their health and economic projections, built with climate model output. He does no due diligence. If he ran his business like this, he would not have succeeded.
So after blindly accepting, the consensus position on climate science he then proceeds to tell us what we must do to combat his hypothesized scourge of climate change. Later he implores the governments of the world to unite in forcing us to do what he wants.
In this author’s opinion, this is a very shallow look at a complex topic. It is more of a propaganda pamphlet than a serious book. Bill Gates should do his homework for his next book. This book is not recommended.
Blunden, J., & Arndt, D. S. (2020). State of the Climate in 2019. BAMS. Retrieved from https://www.ametsoc.org/index.cfm/ams/publications/bulletin-of-the-american-meteorological-society-bams/state-of-the-climate/
May, A. (2020c). Politics and Climate Change: A History. Springfield, Missouri: American Freedom Publications. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/POLITICS-CLIMATE-CHANGE-ANDY-MAY-ebook/dp/B08LJSBVBC/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3POS1QGAQ2C2X&dchild=1&keywords=politics+and+climate+change+a+history+by+andy+may&qid=1609414686&sprefix=Politics+and+Climate%2Caps%2C186&sr=8-1
McKitrick, R., & Christy, J. (2018, July 6). A Test of the Tropical 200- to 300-hPa Warming Rate in Climate Models, Earth and Space Science. Earth and Space Science, 5(9), 529-536. Retrieved from https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018EA000401
Poyet, P. (2020). The Rational e-Book. Patrice Poyet. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/347150306_The_Rational_Climate_e-Book
Sigman, D. M. (2012). The Biological Productivity of the Ocean. Nature Education, 3(10). Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/the-biological-productivity-of-the-ocean-70631104/#:~:text=Higher%20chlorophyll%20concentrations%20and%20in,(Figure%204a%20and%20b).