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Bill Gates tells us How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.
Bill Gates knows the world is going to end, and he’s trying to tell us how to save it.
The key premise of his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, is that the world collectively generates 51 billion tons of greenhouse gasses each year, and we need to get that number down to zero. Each year, as more people get access to heating and cooling, as poor countries get access to electricity, and rich countries increase their energy use, that 51 billion number increases.
That's an issue because even if we get our greenhouse gas emissions in the net negative range--that is, we remove more from from the air every year than we create--our global average temperature will still increase by almost three degrees Fahrenheit by 2040. However, as it stands, we'll likely hit a four degree Fahrenheit increase.
Twenty forty is right around the corner, but is such a small increase in temperature really such a big deal? It is. There is a narrow range of temperatures that can support wide spread human life and our lifestyle as we know it today. We are approaching the upper end of it.
As Gates points out, in the last ice age, our global average temperature was only 11 or so degrees Fahrenheit cooler than today, and in the prehistoric era, when dinosaurs were the dominant creatures, the global average temperature was warmer than today by about 8 degrees Fahrenheit. This was a time when there was so little ice that crocodiles were swimming in the Arctic Circle. That relatively small temperature range was responsible for two vastly different versions of Earth.
The global average temperature is calculated by taking the surface temperature of all land and oceans throughout a year, and then averaging it. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency calculated our average temperature in 2020 to be 58.76 degrees F, about two degrees hotter than the average for last century. At this rate, in the coming decades we can expect some significant changes.
The majority of the air we breath comes from the ocean, the second largest source is the Amazon rainforest. Warmer oceans favor toxic blue-green algae. This type kills marine life and blocks sunlight from reaching the healthy, oxygen producing plants on the ocean floor. Our seafood industries will be obliterated, sushi restaurants will close, and nobody except for the very rich will eat seafood.
Trees in rain forests will combust and burn. They cannot survive in dry conditions. The resulting prices of lumber will make Bitcoin look like a bargain. Because trees and ocean plants both absorb pollutants and produce oxygen, we will see our pollution levels rise in such a way that we will wear masks every day, and we will have to get used to living with less oxygen. This means there will be less human life.
Warming works like this: The sun shines light energy on to our buildings, streets, oceans, houses. These objects absorb the heat from the sun and then release it throughout the day. That heat travels into the atmosphere. Ideally, some of it would stay in the atmosphere, trapped by natural levels of greenhouse gasses, and the rest would escape into outer space.
Today, this cycle is broken. Instead of keeping the ideal amount of heat, we are trapping more and more every year, because we are introducing artificial levels of gasses and chemicals that push the heat back to ground level. We are trapping more of the sun's heat, more of the heat we generate through activity, and also more pollutants.
You might have heard that the earth has natural heating and cooling periods. How the earth's core changes isn't fully understood, partly because we cannot measure it. The center of the earth is just under 4,000 miles underground, and is around 8,000 degrees F. The earth's core is thought to be made of molten iron. It is a misbelief, although somewhat common, that if our atmosphere heats up the earth's core will cool to balance it out. That does not happen.
As far as we know, there is no natural process or natural feedback mechanism that would cause the ecosystem to offset the extent of the chemical activity that we cause. Our planet has the ability to heal some of the harm we do, but not if we increase it. Trees can absorb pollution. The ocean can too. We have surpassed those points. Human-cased global warming is a very specific, narrow issue. It is caused by us and by the chemicals that we release into the air.
We will see effects of this in the very near future. The July issue of National Geographic has a chart that shows the projected mortality and economic changes of rising temperatures up to 2050. Phoenix, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston will be bleak place. Senior citizens will perish sooner. There will be more strokes, more heart attacks. More children and pets will die in cars. Pets that get loose will dehydrate, their paws will sear to the pavement, and they will cook alive.
Most people will adapt, which is different than saying they will thrive. For those who adapt, the costs of living will be astronomically higher.
The cost of groceries will skyrocket, as farms will be decimated because crops cannot grow in arid conditions. Meat will be affordable by the very rich only. Since pet food is mostly meat by-product, there will be no more pet food. More people will be forced to stay inside, in the AC, although air conditioning costs will increase dramatically. Life will become a shell of existence because we will be trapped indoors watching television instead of seeing friends and getting coffee.
We are seeing this already in Phoenix. Last year, in 2020, Maricopa County had over 200 heat related deaths. These are deaths that are related to heat only, not to Covid or any other source. Many of these were homeless people, but a vast amount were retirees living in mobile homes, which are hard to insulate and cool. Retirees living on fixed incomes cannot turn down the AC past a certain point, and often these AC units fail.
Heat creeps up on seniors slowly. Perhaps somebody is watching TV. It's hot, but they try to tough it out, mindful of their budget, bringing up some youthful bravado. A thermostat at 85 is fine. Nobody dies at 85. But they're dehydrated, their kidneys don't work well. Suddenly they're tired and doze off, unaware that the heat is slowing down their body. Perhaps their medicines make internal temperature regulation difficult... they were already dehydrated... they won't wake up.
Gates sees five main categories of global greenhouse emissions:
1. How we make steel, cement, plastics and other materials accounts for 31%. 2. Electricity generation is about 27%. 3. Farming and agriculture contribute 19%. 4. Transportation, such as personal cars, delivery trucks, cargo ships, is about 16%. 5. Heating and cooling, including refrigerators and ice makers at your local coffee shop, is about 7%.
Each of these categories needs to get down to zero. The reason: gaseous greenhouse chemicals stay in our atmosphere for a very long time. In 5,000 years, 40% of our current greenhouse gasses will still be present. That means we are basically guaranteed a warmer near term future.
How do we get these numbers down to zero? Well, according to Gates, we innovate.
A gigawatt is a measure of the flow of electricity. Is is per second. A 60 watt light bulb uses a certain amount of electricity per second it is on. That figure is referred to as 60 watts. The US as a whole uses 1,000 gigawatts. A gigawatt is one billion watts, so we use 1,000 billion watts of electricity, or units of electricity per second. About 60% of that 1,000 billion watts comes from electricity sources that are broiling us.
The reason is those sources are energy rich and cheap. Fossil fuels generate the most amount of energy per square meter of land used, somewhere between 500 and 10,000 watts. Then comes nuclear power, topping out at around 1,000 watts per sq meter of land used, then solar, wind, hydro power, which all fall under 100 watts per sq meter of land used. Renewables, today, aren't useful enough to transform the nation.
California is leading the way to the future. They're committed to getting 60% of their electricity needs from renewables by 2030. The critics who say it's not possible are correct. Using today's thinking and technology, it is not. But the boldness of the proposition and the government incentives will stir entrepreneurs and businesses to figure out how to meet the challenge.
Within the next few decades, we need bold, audacious political thinking. The US's electric grid is not a single grid. It's a patchwork of towns, cities, states, utility companies. If we generate excess solar energy here in Phoenix, there is no way to get it to Maine, or even to Idaho. New types of transmission lines need to be invented, but also new types of contracts, government propositions, rights of way.
It took New York City nine years and four and a half billion dollars to add three new subway stops. That was recently, in 2017, and is a good example that permitting processes, getting emails answered, making phone calls, finding vendors, typically takes longer than actual building. Many communities nationwide have rules that electric lines need to be buried underground, or they have contracts that mandate certain amounts of energy must come from local natural gas companies... all of these sorts of things add complexity to the noble task of getting excess energy from one state to another.
This doesn't mean we should run from the challenge. It means we need to get started now, and we need to use intelligence and savvy instead of angry political force. The mere challenge of figuring out how to transmit solar energy from places that have it to places that don't has almost infinite opportunity for computer coders, wire manufacturers, steel cutters, lawyers, and a new crop of local politicians. Trying to do something difficult and novel creates a type of magic.
That's true in all of the categories that he discusses.
The US uses nearly 100 million tons of steel per year, and another 100 million tons of cement. Creating those two items generates a lot of carbon dioxide. For every 100 million tons of cement we make, we generate 100 million tons of carbon dioxide. And for every 100 million tons of steel we make, we create 180 million tons of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas. This means our new buildings, houses, roads, bridges, dams, infrastructure will eventually bake us alive.
In the US we produce just under 100 million tons of cement per year. China produces just under 2 billion tons per year. China is very fast growing country, and the Chinese government has taken the noble challenge of helping build roads, buildings, apartments throughout the developing world.
It is impossible to stop building. Much of the world is essentially homeless, and roughly one billion people live without electricity. The world needs an era altering amount of built infrastructure. Our country, which is rapidly deteriorating, needs monumental amounts of repair, but also new building. We need homeless shelters, schools, pipes without lead, parks, libraries. This will take glass, plastic, steel, cement--all very polluting industries.
The only way around this is to make glass, plastic, steel, and cement that don't generate greenhouse emissions, and to create electricity sources that don't either. Think of the sheer number of patent lawyers we'll need, and chemists, and woodworkers who can install stairs and handrails. The opportunities in the future are endless.
In theory the carbon atom can be split from the oxygen atoms in carbon dioxide. Why not do it and use that carbon for something? Some people are trying it. A research team at Purdue recently demonstrated that adding titanium dioxide to traditional cement makes it absorb relatively high amounts of CO2. Several companies will form just to bring that to market.
Or so we hope. If nobody steps up to the challenge, we are doomed.
Relevant sources and further reading…
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates
NASA Earth Observatory, https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/decadaltemp.php
Climate Code Red: http://www.climatecodered.org/2010/09/what-would-3-degrees-mean.html
New York Subways, https://www.thedailybeast.com/heres-why-it-took-a-century-and-dollar45-billion-to-add-just-three-subway-stops-in-new-york-city?ref=scroll
National Geographic July: