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How to avoid a climate disaster: Bill Gates’ case for technological optimism

By: Wesley Chan, final year Politics, Philosophy and Law

Written: August 25th, 2022

Published: September 5th, 2022

5 minute read

‘We need to turn off the tap and open up the drain’

Just as greenhouse gases are heating up the planet, Bill Gates suggests that it is like sitting in a bathtub slowly filling up with water, on the brink of overflowing. [1] What we need to do is not only to slow down the flow of water (reducing emissions), but also to turn off the tap (eliminating further emissions), and most importantly, open up the drain and let the water flow out (taking out the greenhouses gases that we’ve put in the atmosphere). Translating this into a climate action plan would mean that not only do we have to move away from carbon-intensive energy like fossil fuels to more renewable energy sources, but also push for carbon-removal technologies so that we still get a breathing chance and not get suffocated by the rising water levels in the bathtub, which resembles the way rising sea levels are swallowing up human life at an alarming rate.

We need to get to zero emissions, which is really hard, but we can do it.’

Gates’ case for technological optimism provides much-needed lucidity in the midst of misinformation and greenwashing narratives around the climate debate. The science is clear: the earth is warming, it is warming because of human activity, its impacts are bad and will get much worse. [2] The dilemma and pathway for society to move forward is also clear: we need energy to run our economy, but we cannot risk any more emissions, so the only way to resolve this tension between the need to sustain human life and not to destroy our planet is a necessary transition to a reliable, affordable and clean energy system. [3]

‘Everything needs to be transformed.’

Given the imperative to transform our energy grid, some may argue that a move away from fossil fuels with public campaigns of divestment and halting new fossil fuel licensing and production would suffice. However, as Bill Gates points out, making electricity only accounts for 27% of all emissions. We have to also consider drastically changing the way we make things (31%), grow things (19%), move things (16%) and keep things warm and cool (7%). [4] From our plastic toothbrush, breakfast cereal that were grown with fertilisers, clothes made with polyester that is derived from petroleum to toilet paper that cut down trees, the ubiquitous presence of fossil fuels and the countless ways our lifestyles necessitate enormous environmental destruction highlights the need for a systematic overview of everything and their carbon impact that we often too easily overlook. [5] With a mechanical and technology-oriented worldview, Gates undoubtedly offers a comprehensive blueprint for introducing government policies and private sector innovation to speed up the transformation needed for every aspect of our lives.

Can we rely on Bill Gates to save our planet?

In my view, Bill Gates paints a strangely optimistic picture of how technological breakthroughs can bring us closer to a more livable future when the project of capitalism with its relentless pursuit of growth has been seen as the culprit of our impending climate disaster. In ‘Four Futures: Life After Capitalism’, Peter Frase argued that capitalism created a crisis of abundance and overconsumption through technological innovation, which simultaneously resulted in a crisis of scarcity and ecological catastrophe. [6] While we hope to innovate out of the imminent climate disasters with new technologies, Peter Frase reminds us that such technological optimism does not automatically help us answer important political questions of who should own these technologies and benefit from the transition. It would put society in an incredibly precarious position if we solely focus our discussions on technical solutions for creating a low-carbon future without considering the ramifications of how these life-saving solutions may be controlled and owned by a handful of tech giants and billionaires. For instance, the pandemic response underscored the unfortunate implications for poor countries who are unable to get hold of enough vaccines when richer, developed countries are hoarding more vaccines than necessary. [7] Such disastrous dynamics could play out when companies in control of important carbon-extraction technologies dedicate themselves to maximising profit without legislative oversight, which would leave the chances of survival to how much a country can pay for the protection of its citizens.

With the immense wealth and influence that Bill Gates wields, he can certainly put them into good use and possibly facilitate significant technological breakthroughs to help countries worldwide with reaching their climate targets. However, while he helpfully demonstrates the immense potential of how private actors can contribute to meaningful solutions in response to government inaction, it also underlines the limits of relying on the good will of ‘conscientious’ entrepreneurs like Bill Gates to do the right thing and engage in environmentally-friendly economic transitions. As we witness the skyrocketing profits that energy companies are making during the cost of living crisis, it is very clear that as long as fossil fuel energy production remains profitable and without government regulation, oil companies are incentivised to continue profiting by changing nothing. [8] Imagine that you are a coal plant operator who invested a billion dollars to build a coal plant with the expectation that it will run for 30 years. Even as renewable energy becomes cheaper and more affordable, it is in your economic interests to stick to what you have unless the government forces you to shut it down. [9]

As Bill Gates himself admitted, ‘techno-fixes are necessary but not sufficient’, there is still an important role for the public to get involved so that technological solutions would come hand in hand with overarching social reforms that address the inequalities and injustices of our current system. [10] By taking a broader view of how society as a whole should be addressing the climate crisis, we can certainly benefit from Bill Gates’s analysis on the necessary steps we can collectively take, but also discover and articulate our vision in this once-in-a-generation opportunity to avoid climate catastrophe.

[1] Gates, Bill. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need. Vintage, 2022, 13.

[2] Ibid, 29.

[3] Ibid, 12.

[4] Ibid, 56.

[5] Ibid, 41.

[6] Frase, Peter. Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (Jacobin). Verso, 2016.

[7] Goldhill, Olivia. “We Have Enough Covid Vaccines for Most of the World. But Rich Countries Are Stockpiling More than They Need for Boosters.” STAT, 13 Dec. 2021, www.statnews.com/2021/12/13/we-have-enough-covid-vaccines-for-most-of-world-but-rich-countries-stockpiling-more-than-they-need.

[8] Jolly, Jasper, and Mark Sweney. “Big Oil’s Quarterly Profits Hit £50bn as UK Braces for Even Higher Energy Bills.” The Guardian, 3 Aug. 2022, www.theguardian.com/business/2022/aug/02/big-oil-profits-energy-bills-windfall-tax.

[9] Ibid [n1], 49.

[10] Ibid, 18.


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