On being … unexpectedly uplifting

By Ingrid Sapona 

Over the past year or so, I’ve written columns that have hinted at my lack of hope for the world. Given this, you may think it’s natural I’d be drawn to a book with the phrase Climate Disaster in its title. Well, that’s not really what drew my attention to Bill Gates’s new book – the full title of which is: “How to Avoid Climate Disaster – The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need.” 

I borrowed the (audio) book from the library this week because I don’t know much about climate change other than that it’s real and that it’s bad. I figured maybe it’s time that I bone up on it. Another reason I decided to read it is because it was written by Bill Gates – a geek with a lot of interests. Don’t we all wish we’d have paid more attention to his 2015 warning about the devastating impact of a global pandemic! (By the way, if you haven’t seen his Vancouver TED talk on pandemics, check it out – one of the eeriest things in the video is a black and white photo of a flu virus – an image we’re all too familiar with now.)

Though I’m only three-fourths of the way through the book, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. It’s been interesting for a variety of reasons. Gates is really good at explaining things in concrete terms. It’s not that he dumbs things down – there’s more chemistry and physics than I can ever pretend to understand. But, he uses interesting – and memorable – analogies. For example, he explains that emissions released into the atmosphere is like water filling a bathtub. Cutting back on emissions amounts to slowing the flow of water into the tub. But, even if the water is slowed to a trickle, eventually it will overflow the tub, causing disaster. Getting to zero net emissions is tantamount to pulling the plug on the tub – the only sure way to prevent water from eventually overflowing and the only sure way to prevent a climate change disaster. 

Anyway – this isn’t meant to be a book report or a discussion of climate change. What’s column-worthy to me about the book is how uplifting I’m finding it. Don’t get me wrong – Gates doesn’t sugar coat how important it is that we address climate change, or how hard it will be. And yet, he thinks we can avert disaster. Given that his optimism seems rooted in knowledge and understanding, it’s hard not to be moved by it. One of the things I found especially noteworthy is how often he talks about innovation. Wouldn’t it be cool if more people start talking about innovation? It’s so refreshing to hear someone who is smart and creative directing their energy to innovating rather than to disrupting, as so many tech whizzes seem to. It’s clear that Gates is focused on true problem solving, rather than on innovating simply to make money. 

I understand that as a nerd (as he describes himself), it’s natural for Gates to have a lot of faith in science and scientists. He clearly believes that many intractable problems can be solved if enough smart people work on them. Though I’ve never really assumed scientists have all the answers, I can’t understand science deniers. If anything, the fact that scientists have come up with vaccines to combat Covid-19 in mere months should make us all feel humbled AND should make us science believers. 

What’s also remarkable is that Gates isn’t daunted by the magnitude of the problem of climate change. From the outset he makes it clear that the goal is to go from 51 tonnes of greenhouse gasses being added to the atmosphere every year to zero tonnes. Clearly not a small goal. It’s interesting to see how his business experience informs his problem-solving approach. He breaks down problems into bite-size chunks of the puzzle and systematically applies assumptions and criteria to evaluate them, considering viability, cost, and potential impact. That said, he’s quite careful to not lose sight of the forest for the trees. After analyzing a particular chunk, he circles back to the big picture to calculate what impact each particular puzzle piece may have on the ultimate goad of getting to zero tonnes. 

Gates is uniquely situated to raise awareness about the immediacy of the climate crisis. Having spent the last 20 years on international humanitarian work, he has a unique global outlook that politicians and businesses often overlook or feel they can’t afford to have. He can also serve as a catalyst, bringing movers and shakers – scientists and investors – from around the globe together to work on the many problems we’ll need to solve to get to zero.    

If Gates is right in his analysis of climate change – the way he was about the devastating global impact of a pandemic – the consequences of not achieving net zero emissions are dire and the timeframe within which to act is short. But, Gates makes a persuasive argument that it can be done. As I said, I’ve not finished the book yet. But it’s already got me thinking more about climate change and ways I can adapt my behavior. More than anything, the book has helped me realize that we’re not powerless unless we fail to act.

© 2021 Ingrid Sapona



On being … on the record

By Ingrid Sapona

As I sit here on Valentines Day 2021, I suspect I’m not alone in saying my heart is broken.

A few days ago, as I was thinking about what today’s column might be about, I had a couple different ideas. But the results of the second impeachment trial and Mitch McConnell’s pathetic attempt at saving face by putting on the record his rationale for voting not guilty made me realize that I too want to be on the record about the events of February 13, 2021.

Like House Impeachment Manager Joe Neguse, who admitted in his closing remarks that perhaps he was being naïve in hoping that the necessary 67 Senators would do the right thing, I clung to that same hope. I wanted to believe that at least 2/3 of the senators would realize that – as Lead House Impeachment Manager Jamie Raskin said – the trial wasn’t about who Trump is, it was about who Congress is. I also wanted to believe that every senator would render impartial justice because they realized, as Neguse said, that the stakes could not be any higher. Indeed, I believe nothing less than the fate of the United States of America was on the table. Given the outcome of the trial, I believe the vote on February 13th will prove to be the pivotal moment in U.S. history.

I found it insulting that Mitch McConnell had at the ready a scathing rebuke of Trump that he delivered after the trial vote. It was quite a display of hubris. Of course, few historians will disagree with his assessment of Trump’s “disgraceful dereliction of duty” on January 6th. But I think the dereliction of duty of the senators who voted to acquit Trump on February 13th will cast a shadow that will loom much larger in history.

Having grown up in the U.S. and having studied the Constitution at law school, I was in awe at the system the Founding Fathers put in place. The contingencies they anticipated and tried to mitigate with a brilliant set of checks and balances aimed at ensuring the separation of powers was truly revolutionary. In fact, it lasted for 230+ years.

But any system is only as strong as those who believe in it and who agree to abide by it. The system – the noble experiment – the Founding Fathers put in place had been pushed and pulled in different directions for over 200 years. There have been many dark episodes in U.S. history, but ultimately those in power chose the values of the Constitution over political gain. Sadly, on February 13, 2021, those in power chose to invoke the Constitution in name only, rather than to ensure it applies to all.

I know that many commentators and people who might have been disappointed with the outcome of the trial have chosen to focus on the few positives they see. They herald the seven Republican senators who broke ranks with their party leadership and found Trump guilty. They point to the fact that Trump’s attorneys seemed to have admitted that Trump lost the election. They even point to the fact that McConnell excoriated Trump after the trial as a positive. Sure – let’s take solace in all those things….

But – for the record – I believe that on February 13, 2021 the whole world heard the death knell that rang out for America democracy. Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic about what will rise in its place.

© 2021 Ingrid Sapona