‘Runaway climate change (1) is not just a technical term in climatology, but a profound reflection of the catastrophic crisis we have reached. In recent years, India is experiencing a series of extreme weather events and finally the Ministry of Earth Sciences has released its first Climate Assessment report. Although hundreds of books and scientific articles published daily on the subject, climate change is neither a topic of debate in national and local elections nor in our policy discussions. Even though, climate change is a widely accepted issue today, there are two dominant perspectives  on how to deal with it. The primary purpose of this article is to introduce two books that reflect two different perspectives.

Gates BookThe first book, titled How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need was authored by Bill Gates, owner of Microsoft, world-renowned for his wealth and philanthropic work. There is no doubt that the content of the book will be the subject of much debate, as Bill Gates is a man capable of influencing nations policy making. It is noteworthy that the book, which was released at the end of February this year, reached all parts of the world within days.

The second book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet was written by Michael E. Mann, a climatologist and geophysicist who is currently the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. He is also the inventor of the ‘Hockey-Stick Curve’, the graph present the global or hemispherical mean temperature record of the past 500 to 1000 years as shown by quantitative climate reconstructions based on climate proxy records. In addition, he is one of eight key scientists who prepared a chapter –Observed Climate Variability and Change– in a book published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2001. Michael E. Mann’s new book was published in January 2021.

Before discussing the content of books, it seems necessary to mention a little about the importance of the time they are published. Most importantly, these books were coming out at a time when Donald Trump, the world’s most influential ‘climate denier’, had to step down as US president and Joe Biden, who generally endorses the climate change theory, came to power. These changes are forcing climate deniers to shift their strategies from ‘denial’ to ‘delay’. In fact, scientific evidence on climate change has become more and more clear and also make the intervention like the Oregon Petition (2), which was organized in 1998, irrelevant. It is also noteworthy that the IPCC’s ‘Sixth Assessment Report’ which is going to be released early next year with more serious warnings, indicating the importance of the time the books are published.

Can techno-optimism overcome epochal crisis?

Rather than the grandeur of the content, the book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” is notable for its author’s fame. The author makes it clear in the first pages of the book that he had to jump into a field other than his own. Gates’s book reflects on the relationship between energy consumption, per capita income, and climate change, as he discusses with his life partner, philanthropic work in the field of health and education, and ‘energy poverty’ as he travels through the sub-Saharan and South Asian countries. Gates begins the first sentence of his book with two numbers. Describing it as “two numbers you need to know about climate change”, he gave the numbers ‘51 billion’ and ‘0’ (zero). The first number is the tonnage of greenhouse gases emitted by the world each year. The second number, ‘zero’, is what we need to aim for; to stop global warming and avoid the worst effects of climate change.

“I think of myself as an engineer rather than a political scientist,” Gates said at the beginning of the book, and, “I have no solution for the politics of climate change.” Needless to say that one can see this approach from the beginning to the end of the book. With the help of statistics and charts, Gates explains how the sources of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change related to our daily lives. Through the book, Gates talks about the carbon emissions that each sector contributes to industrial production, transportation, energy production and recreation, etc. And the potential of green technologies to reduce them to zero.

Gates introduces a range of ‘green premium’ (3) technologies like Hydrogen Energy, Electro Fuel, Bio Energy, Carbon emission free Cement-Plastic-Steel, meat and dairy products from plant cells, next generation nuclear technology (including fusion technology), carbon capture, geothermal plastics, heat storage in his book,  including refrigerators without releasing F-gases (4). Unfortunately, most of the climatologists do not subscribe Gates’ technological optimism. In fact, the green technologies put forward by Gates won’t be able to help to materialize the current level of carbon emissions reduced to the level of the pre-industrial period by 2050. This is because most of the technologies mentioned above take decades to become industrially productive. Take, for example, the nuclear fusion technology referred by Gates. It should not be forgotten that even decades after the beginning of research, the process of enabling energy production through nuclear fusion (on an industrial scale) is still in its infancy. Bill Gates, the owner of TerraPower, knows this better than anyone else.   The scientific community has raised great doubts about the implications and effectiveness of many technologies that have been found to prevent the emission of greenhouse gases, such as geo-engineering and carbon capture. There is a great concern that this will lead the world to a situation where the solutions themselves will turn into crises.

Gates’ book, consciously hesitate to discuss two important political aspects of climate change. One is the ‘historical emission’ done by developed countries. From 1751 to the present, the United States alone emitted 400 billion tons of carbon, it accounts 25% of the world’s total historical emissions. There is a strong argument today that developed countries should provide financial assistance to underdeveloped countries which are becoming victims of climate change in their historic emissions. The issue was strongly raised at the 2019 climate summit held in Madrid, but the Trump administration has strongly intervened to defeat the Madrid summit for this reason.

The second issue relates to ‘equity’ in resource use, which is one of the most important aspects in climate change discourse. But in his 250-page book, Gates is consciously trying to avoid mentioning the word ‘equity’. Readers need to know of the other two numbers, not just the two numbers that Gates introduces at the beginning of his book; i.e.; 1% and 99%. Debates about the climate crisis can only make sense by discussing the politics of unequal resource transfer to that 1 percent, which controls 38 percent of the world’s wealth. By hiding this political aspect, Gates is creating the illusion that the solution can be found through the technological innovations.

The Lost Half Century

Mann BookMichael E. Mann presents completely different perspectives and visions from Gates’s in his book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back the Planet. Mann, a fan of Carl Sagan, has been interacting with all possible media with the conviction that his knowledge and findings should not be shared only at the academic level but also made available to the wider public sphere. Based on his own experiences and evidences  Mann describes, how the fossil fuel lobbies have been hiding their discoveries about the ‘anthropocene’ factor behind climate change from public debate for decades. In his book, Mann reveals how the fossil fuel lobby is attacking scientists who explain climate change based on scientific evidence. He begins with the revelation that the Exxon Mobil Company has been hiding for nearly half a century the findings of James F. Black, a senior scientist at Exxon Mobil,’s research on the crucial role of the fossil fuel industry in carbon emissions in climate change. Mann elaborately describes, how David & Charles Koch, also known as the ‘Koch Brothers’ with Shell, ExxonMobil and British Petroleum formed the ‘Global Climate Coalition’  have influenced the world’s leading scientific research institutes and scientists for protecting their interests.

Michael E. Mann’s fame as a climatologist comes in connection with the publication of  temperature variation  data of thousand years. Mann is the originator of the ‘hockey-stick curve’ that initially sparked controversy and was later accepted by the scientific community. Mann, with his hockey stick curve graph, explained more clearly the anthropocene factor of temperature variations that shook the fossil fuel industrial lobby. In his 2012 book, Hockey Stick and the Climate War, Mann described how they had unleashed a massive publicity against his research paper with the support of scientists at the George C. Marshall Institute-GMI (GMI is a den of climate deniers funded by the fossil fuel industry).

Through his personal experience, Mann explains that the controversy, known as the ‘Climategate’, was intended to discredit climatologists and to undermine their personal and career lives. Climate deniers have changed their tactics from ‘denial’ to ‘deflect’, ‘delay’ and ‘downplay’, when extreme weather events begin to haunt humankind. They used tactics to convince each individual that they were responsible for the carbon emissions. It is interesting to note that it was British Petroleum first introduced the concept of ‘individual carbon footprints’ and invented the ‘carbon calculator’!

Michael E. Mann explains that industry lobbies and governments have been making deliberate moves to divert individuals from the real solution, instead of making the necessary policy and political collective decisions to reduce the amount of carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

The trend of portraying the individuals as the cause of crises without adopting political decisions and policy approaches started in the 70s with popular advertising films like ‘Crying Indian'(5). As American environmentalist Sammy Grover puts it, “Contrary to popular belief, fossil fuel companies are actually happy to talk about the environment. They only want to stifle discussions on personal responsibility, not about systemic change or corporate crime”. Today we understand that the attempt to deny scientific facts and divert discussion has led to a ‘runaway climate change’ situation.

The scientific community claims that the crisis cannot be solved without systemic change and global solidarity. Mann point out the possibilities before us: “We can only burn a finite amount of carbon to avoid 1.5°C warmings. And if we exceed the budget, which seems quite possible at this point, there is still a budget for avoiding 2°C warmings. Every bit of additional carbon we burn makes things worse. But conversely, every bit of carbon we avoid burning prevents additional damage. There is both urgency and agency”.

Non-solution solutions

Climate deniers also find it very difficult to divert public debate on climate change, just because it is evident. The growing number of climate refugees also underscores the depth of the crisis. Therefore, they come up with a vast array of technologies to combat carbon emissions. Along with natural gas, carbon capture and geoengineering, they also offer comfort words like ‘bridge fuels’, ‘clean coal’ and ‘adaptation’. Michael E. Mann asserts that these are just empty promises, creating the illusion that the official system is engaged in remedial action. The vested interests of climate deniers operate in many ways in the global economic system. The author is hopeful of new developments emerging at the initiative of young people, recognizing the fundamental nature of climate change. Mann says the movements nurtured by young climate activists, including Greta Tunberg and Alexandria Villasener, offer hope for the future.

As the famous environmental scientist David Orr points out in his book, “no matter what our personal preference, politics, or beliefs may be, as greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, temperature will continue to rise until the Earth reaches a new equilibrium”(David Orr, 2009). The journey of human society to a future that is completely unfamiliar is yet to come, and many of the things he has built up to this day will become alien to him and he will have to establish new ones. Democratic models, social organizations and economic systems will all have to be subjected to major breakdowns. Reluctance to imagine something different from what has been practiced to date is manifested in the initial stage as disdain towards them. Major changes in energy consumption, production, distribution and the economy as a whole will therefore be inevitable.

The two books mentioned above represent two totally different perspectives.

When one aims at the excessive concentration of wealth and power, the other dreams of a common future of humanity by upholding coexistence between nature and man. The first suggests big capital investments and complex technologies, while the other seeks ways of symbiosis and cooperation.

Notes:

  1. Runaway Climate Change: Self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises and cause continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway even as human emissions are reduced.
  2. Oregon Petition is a Global Warming Petition Project is a petition urging the United States government to reject the global warming Kyoto Protocol of 1997 and similar policies. The petition was organized and circulated by Arthur B. Robinson, president of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (described as “a small independent research group”) in 1998
  3. Green Premium is the additional cost of choosing a clean technology over one that emits a greater amount of greenhouse gases. Right now, clean solutions are usually more expensive than high-emissions ones, in part because we don’t factor the true economic and environmental costs of existing energy options like fossil fuels into the price we pay for them.
  4. F-Gases: Fluorinated gases are man-made gases that can stay in the atmosphere for centuries and contribute to a global greenhouse effect. There are four types: hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3). F-gases are a subgroup of the halogenated gases, the majority of which are halocarbons that include fluorine, but do not include chlorine, bromine, or iodine.
  5. Crying Indian: In 1971, a new campaign was launched, on Earth Day, with the theme, “People Start Pollution. People Can Stop It.” In what became known as the “Crying Indian” PSA, the television ad, narrated by actor William Conrad with Peter Sarstedt’s instrumental “Overture” playing in the background as its ominous theme, featured actor Iron Eyes Cody, who portrayed a Native American man devastated to see the destruction of Earth’s natural beauty caused by the thoughtless pollution and litter of a modern society

Book Review

  1. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need; Bill Gates, p. 272, Alfred A Knopf, February 2021.
  2. The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet; Michael E. Mann, p.296, Public Affairs, January 2021.

K. Sahadevan is an author and activist


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