Gavin’s Friday Reads: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates
“I was surprised when I learned that what sounded like a small increase in the global temperature – just one or two degrees Celsius, which is 1.9 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit – could actually cause a lot of trouble. But it is true: In climate terms, a change of just a few degrees is a big deal. During the last ice age, the average temperature was just 6 degrees Celsius lower than it is today. During the age of the dinosaurs, when the average temperature was perhaps 4 degrees Celsius higher than it is today, there were crocodiles living above the Arctic Circle.”
– Bill Gates, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster
This was the most shocking thing I read in this book. I had to stop and read it again. Crocodiles swimming north of the arctic circle. The vision of crocodiles comfortably swimming where polar bears still do now was a shock to me. We are already responsible for a 1 degree Celsius rise in average temperature. We are easily on track to hit crocodiles in the arctic range by the end of this century.
I have been fixated on fuel efficiency since the early 70’s. Maybe it was because I turned 16 and got my driver’s licence in the middle of the 1973 Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil embargo, during which gas prices nearly quadrupled. With a new licence to drive and being the oldest child it became my responsibility to take the two family cars down to fill them up whenever they got below half a tank.
For those of you who are too young to remember, fuel was in short supply. To encourage saving fuel the law changed and, you were only allowed to fill up your car on certain days. If your license plate ended in an even number then you could fill up on even numbered days and if it was odd numbered you could fill up on odd number days. We were lucky enough to have several cars and license plates with odd and even numbers.
So I got to sit in long lines waiting for hours to fill up our cars. One of our cars was a Ford Montego Wagon. It was rated the lowest mileage car in the U.S. at the time. It had a V8 450hp engine and got about 8 miles to the gallon. It idled at a very high speed. If you took your foot off the brake it would probably get to 35 mph without touching the accelerator. Waiting in those lines for hours served to provide me with plenty of time to contemplate everything that was wrong with this picture.
My father also had a diesel Mercedes. Not only did it get great mileage but he could pump fuel out of the home heating oil tank right into his car. Most people don’t realize that #2 heating oil and diesel are the same thing. This allowed my father to continue commuting to NYC from Greenwich Ct. every day without much inconvenience.
My first attempt at a more efficient vehicle was a three wheeled motorcycle I built in my college years out of a small Suzuki 60 cc dirt bike and a snowmobile frame. Later on I bought a 1973 Porsche 914 and converted it to an electric car. But lead acid batteries were quite heavy and due to all the lead I was moving around I only had a range of about 45 miles. I had a 40 mile commute which was cutting it close so the car mostly sat in the driveway to be used on weekends.
By the late 80’s I was working at the family food business. In the early 90’s bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) hit England. In England up until that time to provide cows with protein, cows were being fed leftover cow parts mixed into their feed. Brains and nervous system parts contained these things called prions which infected the brains and nervous systems of the cows who were fed this. (gross right?) It turned out that these prions could then be passed on to people. Anyway they had to stop this and find another source of protein for the cows. One of the sources was soy protein from the U.S. Soy contains a lot of oil though which was believed to be not so good for the cows so the oil was pressed out and left behind. Due to the glut of soy oil, soy oil prices plummeted.
Eventually the price of soy oil was the same as #2 heating oil. I wondered if our #2 fuel oil fired boilers that created steam for food processing would run on soy oil. I found some articles that suggested it would, so one Saturday we filled up a 55 gallon drum with soy oil and brought it to the boiler room. We hooked it up and the boiler continued to run as though nothing had changed. So we began to run our boiler on vegetable oil until the price of it got too high again.
That got me thinking though, the boiler ran on #2 fuel oil and vegetable oil. Diesel cars would run on diesel and on #2 fuel oil. So could a diesel car run on vegetable oil? It was early internet dial up modem days but I checked online and sure enough found some Sweedish farmers who were pressing the oil out of their canola seeds and feeding the meal to their animals and the oil to their diesel, tractors, Volvo’s and VW’s. All I needed to do was heat the oil to 140F and it would have the same viscosity as diesel and the engine would run the same.
I could not find a used diesel car so I bought a new VW Golf in 2001 and converted it straight away. For the next 10 years I drove to work on vegetable oil, a renewable fuel!
At the same time that electric Porsche was sitting in the driveway because it’s battery range was so poor, so I also converted the Porsche 914 to vegetable oil. I installed a Yanmar 40HP turbo Diesel in it and with that car I won the 2006 NESEA TourDeSol prize for most environmentally friendly and highest mileage bio fuel vehicle.
I really enjoyed reading Bill Gates’s book. As he says in the beginning he is a technical guy so when presented with a problem he immediately looks for a technical solution. He is also an optimist, (as I am, at least as far as technology goes). We have a lot of solutions at hand already. Some are actually less expensive than the fossil fuel alternative. Heat pumps are a good example of this. In these cases it is really a matter of getting the word out. In other areas there are promising technologies that we can probably use but it will take a bit more time and investment to get us there. There are new breakthroughs in solar, wind, and especially in batteries that are coming out almost every day.
I am aware that I am an imperfect messenger on climate change. The world is not exactly lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do, or who think Technology can fix any problem.Bill Gates, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster
On the other hand there are big issues to overcome in some areas like making cement and steel, and the ways we do manufacturing and agriculture. According to Gates we need to get to ZERO net carbon emissions in the wealthier countries by 2050. We are currently adding 51 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere each year. (Just like the volcanoes were adding carbon to the atmosphere back in the days of the dinosaurs) A 50% reduction in the wealthier countries is going to be the easy part. We have some relatively easy things we can do to get us there like electric cars and heat pumps and less sexy stuff like caulking air leaks and insulation.
But as Gates says “this is going to be really hard”. We have developing countries who will want and deserve to have a similar standard of living. That is a lot more people who will need a lot more energy. Since we wealthier countries are responsible for getting us into this mess it only makes sense that the burden for getting us out of this should also start with us. We need to be investing in numerous potential solutions that might or might not work out. The benefit to this investment is that the countries who figure it out will have technology and goods they can export. The Danes invested a lot in wind energy early on and they are currently the world’s largest exporter of wind technology and equipment.
This same race to higher levels of expertise is happening in solar and to an even higher level in batteries. Battery competition is exploding and whoever wins this development race will have car makers and others banging on their doors.
Despite Gate’s admission to being a technical guy, this is a very readable book written in a conversational voice. I have listened to Bill Gates speak, and as I read this I can actually hear him talking to me as I read. The book is a good blend of why we need to do this, what we need to do, and how it can be done. He is also clear on the technology that we have and the technology we will need to develop. He presents the large numbers like 51 Billion tons of CO2 in terms you can get your head around. He is both practical and realistic. A good blend of how hard it is going to be and also examples of similar large scale transformations we have already accomplished in a similar amount of time. He is quite humble admitting he is part of the problem and he knows it. He is also genuine about admitting that there is a lot we don’t know about climate change.
Of course what we don’t know could mean it might be better than we think but it could also be worse. We only have one planet and the future of generations of humans for the next 10,000 years or longer depends on us in this generation getting this right.
Bill has a lot of experience working with governments around the world through the work he has done with Melinda at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He understands the complexity of getting to consensus.
Global cooperation is notoriously difficult. It is hard to get every country in the world to agree on anything – especially when you are asking them to incur some new cost.Bill Gates, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster
The biggest problem we face is getting global consensus. As a friend of mine says it is 90% attitude and 10% everything else. As the wealthiest nation we need to get our attitude right and go first and set an example. This is the best way to get others to adjust their attitudes.
I think the book is great. The details, the conversational tone, realism, practicality, and humility are all a good balance. There are only two things that I think more time could be spent on. The first is regenerative agriculture. Not only do we need to modify our agricultural processes to emit less carbon as Gates suggests. But we can also use agriculture to store carbon in the soil and improve farming at the same time. This is something that is currently being done and it needs a lot more experimentation and research.
The other thing I would have added in are more creative ways we can conserve energy. Conservation is not as sexy as solar panels and batteries but it is the first and most important thing. There are a lot of opportunities in the details of how we live our lives that can make a big difference. Gates does not expect us to be willing to change our lifestyle much and he may be right. As a person who has modified and built his own vehicles out of frustration for what is available in the commercial market though I think that harnessing determination and creativity of all of us (especially young people) has a huge potential for positive impact. I intend to continue to keep working hard on this issue. People who are 18 years old now will be 50 in 2050. I think we can expect big things from them.
Cheers for Friday,
Gavin Watson, Chair, Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter