Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: three ways to change the world

What can we actually do to prevent climate catastrophe? Here are three practical and inspiring points on making a difference, from Bill Gates's new book.

A portrait of Bill Gates side-by-side with the cover of his book
Image: Penguin

Twenty-five years ago, Penguin published Bill Gates’s first book The Road Ahead. At the time, people were wondering where digital technology was headed and how it would affect our lives, and he wanted to share his thoughts – and his enthusiasm. Gates notes, “I also had fun making some predictions about breakthroughs in computing, and especially the Internet, that were coming in the next couple of decades.”

Gates admits he was “too optimistic about some things, but other things happened even faster or more dramatically than I imagined.” He was right about how much internet would transform society, and the advent of digital tools. For instance, there’s a chapter on video on demand and computers that will fit in your pocket.

The Road Ahead has a lot in common with his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Both are about how technology and innovation can help solve important problems. Both share glimpses into the cutting-edge technology Gates invests in and learns about.According to Gates, “one thing is different: The stakes are higher with climate change. As passionate as I am about software, the effort to avoid a climate disaster has a whole other level of urgency. Failing to get this right will have bad consequences for humanity. But you can also see the glass as half-full. There are huge opportunities to solve this problem, eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions, and create new industries that make clean energy available and affordable for everyone – including people in the world’s poorest countries.”

To celebrate publication today, here are three key things Bill Gates suggests we as individuals can do to help avoid a climate disaster:

As a citizen:

Engaging in the political process is the single most important step that people from every walk of life can take to help avoid a climate disaster. Elected officials will adopt specific plans for climate change only if their voters demand it. Thanks to activists around the world, we don’t need to generate the demand. Millions of people are already calling for action.

What we do need to do, though, is to translate these calls for action into pressure that encourages politicians to make the tough choices and trade-offs necessary to deliver on their promises to reduce emissions. Gates tells us to make calls, write letters and attend town halls. He also encourages us to look locally as well as nationally for places where individual citizens can have an even bigger impact, such as your villages, towns and local communities. He even suggests running for local office, saying "we need all the policy smarts, courage and creativity in public office that we can get."

As a consumer:

The market is ruled by supply and demand, and as a consumer we can have a real impact on the demand side of the equation. Gates encourages us to sign up for a green pricing programme with our electricity provider, reduce our home’s emissions, buy an electric vehicle or try a plant based-burger. When we do things like this, we are sending a signal to the market that people want zero-carbon alternatives and are willing to pay for them.

Gates believes that if enough of us send the same signal, companies will respond. They’ll put more money and time into low emissions products, which will drive down the prices of those products and help get them adopted in big numbers. It will make investors more confident about funding new companies that are making the breakthroughs that will help us get to zero greenhouse gas emissions.

As an employee or employer:

As an employee or a shareholder we can push our company to do its part. Companies should reprioritise their Research & Development work, particularly on low-carbon innovations, and larger companies can partner with governments to bring practical commercial expertise to research efforts.

Gates urges companies to adopt new technologies; such as using electric vehicles for corporate fleets or committing to a certain amount of clean electricity. He suggests that employees should engage in the policy making process and that businesses should champion getting to zero and support funding that will get us there. Companies and shareholders can support early-stage innovators turn their promising ideas into products with financial help, access to facilities and data and fellowship programmes.

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