Reproduced from Apple News
Simple steps to avert climate catastrophe
In his new book, Bill Gates – the technologist, philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft – lays out the changes we can make to help the planet.
It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of a problem as big as climate change. But you’re not powerless. And you don’t have to be a politician or a philanthropist to make a difference. You have influence as a citizen, a consumer, and an employee or employer.
As A Citizen
When you ask yourself what you can do to limit climate change, it’s natural to think of things like driving an electric car or eating less meat. This sort of personal action is important for the signals it sends to the marketplace—see the next section for more on that point—but the bulk of our emissions comes from the larger systems in which we live our daily lives.
When somebody wants toast for breakfast, we need to make sure there’s a system in place that can deliver the bread, the toaster, and the electricity to run the toaster without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. We aren’t going to solve the climate problem by telling people not to eat toast.
But putting this new energy system in place requires concerted political action. That’s why engaging in the political process is the most important single step that people from every walk of life can take to help avoid a climate disaster.
In my own meetings with politicians, I’ve found that it helps to remember that climate change isn’t the only thing on their plate. Government leaders are also thinking about education, jobs, health care, foreign policy, and more recently, COVID-19. And they should: All those things demand attention.
But policy makers can take on only so many problems at once. And they decide what to do, what to prioritize, based on what they’re hearing from their constituents.
In other words, elected officials will adopt specific plans for climate change if their voters demand it. Thanks to activists around the world, we don’t need to generate 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.
Whatever other resources you may have, you can always use your voice and your vote to effect change.
Make calls, write letters, attend town halls. What you can help your leaders understand is that it’s just as important for them to think about the long-term problem of climate change as it is for them to think about jobs or education or health care.
It may sound old-fashioned, but letters and phone calls to your elected officials can have a real impact. Senators and representatives get frequent reports on what their offices are hearing from constituents. But don’t simply say, “Do something about climate change.” Know where they stand, ask them questions, and make clear that this is an issue that will help determine how you vote. Demand more funding for clean energy R&D, a clean energy standard, a price on carbon, or other policies.
Look locally as well as nationally. A lot of the relevant decisions are made at the state and local levels by governors, mayors, state legislatures, and city councils—places where individual citizens can have an even bigger impact than at the federal level. In the United States, for example, electricity is primarily regulated by statewide public utility commissions, made up of either elected or appointed commissioners. Know who your representatives are and keep in touch with them.
Run for office. Running for the U.S. Congress is a tall order. But you don’t have to start there. You can run for state or local office, where you’ll probably have more impact anyway. 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 you can have a huge impact on the demand side of the equation. If all of us make individual changes in what we buy and use, it can add up to a lot—as long as we focus on changes that are meaningful. For example, if you can afford to install a smart thermostat to reduce your energy consumption when you’re not at home, by all means do it. You’ll cut your utility bill and your greenhouse gas emissions.
But reducing your own carbon emissions isn’t the most powerful thing you can do. You can also send a signal to the market that people want zero-carbon alternatives and are willing to pay for them. When you pay more for an electric car, a heat pump, or a plant-based burger, you’re saying, “There’s a market for this stuff. We’ll buy it.” If enough people send the same signal, companies will respond—quite quickly, in my experience. They’ll put more money and time into making low-emissions products, which will drive down the prices of those products, which will help them get 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.
Without that demand signal, the innovations that governments and businesses invest in will stay on the shelf. Or they won’t get developed in the first place, because there’s no economic incentive to make them.
Here are some specific steps you can take:
Sign up for a green pricing program with your electric utility. Some utility companies allow homes and businesses to pay extra for power from clean sources. In 13 states, utilities are required to offer this option. Customers in these programs pay a premium on their electric bill to cover the extra cost of renewable energy, an average of one to two cents per kilowatt-hour, or $9 to $18 a month for the typical American home. When you participate in these programs, you’re telling your utility company that you’re willing to pay more to address climate change. That’s an important market signal.
But what these programs don’t do is cancel out emissions or lead to meaningful increases in the amount of renewable power on the grid. Only government policies and increased investments can do that.
Reduce your home’s emissions. Depending on how much money and time you can spare, you can replace your incandescent lightbulbs with LEDs, install a smart thermostat, insulate your windows, buy efficient appliances, or replace your heating and cooling system with a heat pump (as long as you live in a climate where they can operate). If you rent your home, you can make the changes within your control—such as replacing lightbulbs—and encourage your landlord to do the rest. If you’re building a new home or renovating an old one, you can opt for recycled steel and make the home more efficient by using structural insulated panels, insulating concrete forms, attic or roof radiant barriers, reflective insulation, and foundation insulation.
Buy an electric vehicle. EVs have come a long way in terms of cost and performance. Although they might not be right for everyone (they’re not great for lots of long-distance road trips, and charging at home isn’t convenient for everyone), they’re becoming more affordable for many consumers. This is one of the places where consumer behavior can have a huge impact: If people buy lots of them, companies will make lots of them.
Try a plant-based burger. I’ll admit that veggie burgers haven’t always tasted great, but the new generation of plant-based protein alternatives is better and closer to the taste and texture of meat than their predecessors. You can find them in many restaurants, grocery stores, and even fast-food joints. Buying these products sends a clear message that making them is a wise investment. In addition, eating a meat substitute (or simply not eating meat) just once or twice a week will cut down on the emissions you’re responsible for. The same goes for dairy products.
One Last Thought
Unfortunately, the conversation about climate change has become unnecessarily polarized, not to mention clouded by conflicting information and confusing stories. We need to make the debate more thoughtful and constructive, and most of all we need to center it on realistic, specific plans for getting to zero.
I wish there were some magic invention that could steer the conversation in a more productive direction. Of course, no such device exists. Instead, it’s up to each of us.
My hope is that we can shift the conversation by sharing the facts with the people in our lives—our family members, friends, and leaders. And not just the facts that tell us why we need to act, but also those that show us the actions that will do the most good. One of my goals in writing this book is to spark more of these conversations.
I also hope we can unite behind plans that bridge political divides. As I’ve tried to demonstrate, this isn’t as naive as it may sound. No one has cornered the market on effective solutions to climate change. Whether you’re a believer in the private sector, or government intervention, or activism, or some combination, there’s a practical idea you can get behind. As for the ideas you can’t support, you may feel compelled to speak out, and that’s understandable. But I hope you’ll spend more time and energy supporting whatever you’re in favor of than opposing whatever you’re against.
With the threat of climate change upon us, it can be hard to be hopeful about the future. But as my friend Hans Rosling, the late global health advocate and educator, wrote in his amazing book Factfulness: “When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems—and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.”
When we have a fact-based view of climate change, we can see that we have some of the things we need to avoid a climate disaster, but not all of them.1 We can see what stands in the way of deploying the solutions we have and developing the breakthroughs we need. And we can see all the work we must do to overcome those hurdles.
I’m an optimist because I know what technology can accomplish and because I know what people can accomplish. I’m profoundly inspired by all the passion I see, especially among young people, for solving this problem. If we keep our eye on the big goal—getting to zero—and we make serious plans to achieve that goal, we can avoid a disaster. We can keep the climate bearable for everyone, help hundreds of millions of poor people make the most of their lives, and preserve the planet for generations to come.
Bill Gates is a technologist, business leader, and philanthropist. In 1975, he co-founded Microsoft with his childhood friend Paul Allen; today he and his wife, Melinda, are co-chairs of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates also launched Breakthrough Energy, a network of entities and initiatives, including investment funds, non-profit and philanthropic programs, and policy efforts linked by a common commitment to scale the technologies we need to achieve a path to net-zero emissions by 2050. He and Melinda have three children and live in Medina, Washington.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates is published by Penguin Random House and is out now.
© Bill Gates