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



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