Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Review of Bill Gates Book on Climate Change


How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need

By Bill Gates; 2021

Published just this year, Bill Gates' first solo book couldn’t be more opportune. It emerged during the year that is seeing the costliest weather disasters in history: record global temperatures that have led to horrific forest fires in many parts of the globe, rather strangely partnered with record floods in others. I have been keen on climate change issues since the early 1970s. Also of interest to me is the person of Bill Gates (co-founder of Microsoft Corporation, with the late Paul Allen). Early investors in MS quickly became quite wealthy. For their part, Gates and his wife set up The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has done many good works throughout the world. Among the super-rich, Gates has had an extraordinary impact on the world.

In the introduction to the book, he sums up his thesis neatly. “There are two numbers you need to know about climate change,” he says. “The first is 51 billion. The other is zero.”

Fifty-one billion is how many tons of greenhouse gases the world typically adds to the atmosphere every year. Although the figure may go up or down a bit from year, it’s generally increasing. This is where we are today.

Zero is what we need to aim for. To stop the warming and avoid the worst effects of climate change – and these effects will be very bad – humans need to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

This sounds difficult, because it will be. The world has never done anything quite this big. Every country will need to change its ways. Virtually every activity in modern life – growing things, making things, getting around from place to place – involves releasing greenhouse gases, and as time goes on, more people will be living this modern lifestyle. That’s good, because it means their lives are getting better. Yet if nothing else changes, the world will keep producing greenhouse gases, climate change will keep getting worse, and the impact on human will in all likelihood be catastrophic.

But “if nothing else changes” is a big If. I believe that things can change. We already have some of the tools we need, and as for those we don’t yet have, everything I’ve learned about climate and technology makes me optimistic that we can invent them, deploy them, and, if we act fast enough, avoid a climate catastrophe.

This book is about what it will take and why I think we can do it.

The global push for a better planet has been remarkable. While talk about climate change has been around since the mid-1800s, it’s only in recent years that people of all ages and socioeconomic levels have contributed their voices to the campaign for a more secure future. Remember Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist who has gained prominence for her work to halt climate change and global warming? She rose to fame for organizing the world's first school strike for climate outside Sweden's parliament in August 2018, and gave a speech at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit, berating world leaders for not taking more actions against climate change. Today, the knowledge of the climate crisis is more widespread than ever, together with the understanding that if greenhouse gas emissions keep rising — or even if the numbers remain the same year-on-year – our world will become a flooded inferno faster than we think. And while many climate authors have properly situated this horror as something to run away from, Gates shines a ray of light on something to run toward. His message: we really can get to zero carbon emissions, and for our own good, we must do so within the next 30 years.

From his founding of Microsoft to the work of the Bill and Melinda Foundation’s work in tackling such horrid diseases as polio and malaria, Gates has invested much of his life in the mission to change lives. Much of his work exists within the realm of technology: a firm believer in the power of the applied sciences — and perhaps in his insufficient understanding of the social sciences, he has made such statements as “Show me a problem and I’d look for a technology to fix it” at the same UN Climate Action Summit that Thunberg spoke to. This well-written book gracefully crosses the boundary between scholarly research and creative nonfiction, and Gates makes a strong case for improvements humanity needs. Rather modestly, he says he has worked within the sphere of environmental sustainability for almost two decades, studying, travelling, and consulting with experts in the fields of biology, physics, chemistry, and engineering, among others. In this book, he delivers excellent ideas on the scale of the climate problem, using all the tools in his arsenal — percentages, indexes and charts, for example.

“We already have two of the three things you need to accomplish any major undertaking,” Gates says. “First, we have ambition, thanks to the passion of a growing global movement led by young people who are deeply concerned about climate change. Second, we have big goals for solving the problem as more national and local leaders around the world commit to doing their part. Now we need the third component: a concrete plan to achieve our goals.” On this point, he writes, “I don’t have a solution to the politics of climate change,” and makes no effort in the rest of the book to find one.

As you have probably gathered, I very much enjoyed this book, and there’s a lot more I could say about it. But I will end on his discussion of bovine flatulence – that is, the propensity of herds of cattle to emit methane. After a paragraph in which he describes a “healthy debate” he and Melinda had when discussing the use of the word “fart” in their foundation newsletter, he says “she got me down to one. As the sole author of this book, I have more leeway, and I intend to use it.” He then describes the four parts of a cow’s digestive system, and notes that “in a process called enteric fermentation, bacteria inside the cow’s stomach breakdown the cellulose in the plants, fermenting it and producing methane as a result. The cow belches away most of the methane, although a little comes out the other end as flatulence…. Around the world, there are roughly a billion cattle raised for beef and dairy. The methane they burp and fart out every year as the same warming effect as 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, accounting for about 4% of all global emissions.”

I learned a lot from this book, and recommend it highly.



Thursday, July 22, 2021

Carl Sagan, the Demon-Haunted World


Book Review, by Peter McKenzie-Brown

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark 

By Carl Sagan; 457 pages

Carl Edward Sagan 1934–1996) was an American astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, and science communicator. Initially an associate professor at Harvard, Sagan later moved to Cornell where he would spend most of his career as the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences. He published more than 600 scientific papers and articles and was author, co-author, or editor of some twenty books. He also narrated and co-wrote the award-winning 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which half a billion people worldwide have seen. His papers, containing 595,000 items, are archived at The Library of Congress.

Sagan published The Demon-Haunted World a quarter of a century ago. To a degree, it includes material he had published elsewhere, including In it, he makes it his business to present the reality of the cosmos in language people can enjoy and understand. Simply put, it’s the best book with a focus on science and technology I’ve ever read. The depth of his source material boggles the mind – at least, it boggled my mind….

As his acknowledgements confirm, the book includes material he had published elsewhere, and “parts of four of the chapters were written with my wife and long-time collaborator, Ann Druyan, who is also the elected Secretary of the Federation of American Scientists.” The book’s title is the same as that itself uses the same title as chapter 7, “The Demon-Haunted World.” In places, it illuminates US constitutional history at the time of Thomas Jefferson; witchcraft trials in Würzburg, Germany, in 1631; the manipulation of historic memory in Russia under Stalin; the monopoly of media ownership; Linus Pauling and the test ban treaty of 1963; and Edward Teller’s enthusiasm for the hydrogen bomb. To cite one of these examples, consider witchcraft. His descriptions of witch-hunting are horrific. To my surprise, witches were not always women. In the early days, the correct way to send them to hell, however, was clear: Burn them at the stake. This was done with gusto in many places, and the German city of Würzburg reached a local crescendo in 1598. Citing the chronicles of the day, Sagan writes that those who received this treatment included:

The steward of the senate, named Gering; old Mrs. Kanzler; the tailor’s fat wife; the woman cook of Mr. Mengerdorf; a stranger; a strange woman; Baunoch, a senator, the fattest citizen in Würzburg; the old smith of the court; an old woman; a little girl, nine or ten years old; a younger girl, her little sister; the mother of the two little aforementioned girls; Lieblers’ daughter; Goebel’s child, the most beautiful girl in Würzburg; a student who knew many languages; two boys from the Minster, each 12 years old; Steppers’ little daughter; the woman who kept the bridge gate; an old woman; the little son of the town council bailiff; the wife of Knerts, the butcher; the infant daughter of doctor Schultz; a blind girl; Schwartz, canon at Hach....

Sagan adds in the following paragraph, “...[T]his was a microcosm of what was happening all across Europe. No one knows how many were killed altogether – perhaps hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. Those responsible for prosecuting, torturing, judging, burning, and justifying were selfless. Just ask them.”

In the years since these atrocities took place, democratic institutions have civilised the law in most advanced countries, mostly ending such behaviour. Also, of course, we have developed science and technology, each of which contributed to the growth of the other. Centuries of scientific and technological development notwithstanding, when this book first appeared, alien- landing in the UK were supposedly creating crop circles, and such specialists as psychokinetic athletes, crystal therapists, faith healers and spiritualists were exciting those fascinated with the unknown.

The aim of this book is scientific literacy. Using the data available in 1996, he says that “63% of American adults are unaware that the last dinosaur died before the first human arose; 75% do not know that antibiotics kill bacteria but not viruses; 57% do not know that ‘electrons’ are smaller than atoms. Polls show that something like half of American adults do not know that the earth goes around the sun and takes a year to do it. I can find in my undergraduate classes at Cornell University bright students who did not know that the stars rise and set at night or even that the sun is a star.”

Reading this book makes scepticism seem to be a warm, positive thing – a tool helping reveal the real wonder of the world around us, and one that also helps us reject the delusions. As Sagan dissects human folly, he tells some great anecdotes: he teases the Dalai Lama, speaks knowledgeably about Leviticus, Exodus, Numbers, the Gospels, and western philosophy, going back to Plato. He also takes aim at attitudes in western societies that dismiss education and rebuff systematic curiosity.

Each chapter begins with a big contrast of ideas. For example, chapter23 (titled “Maxwell and The Nerds”) contrasts the statement from US president Ronald Reagan, circa 1980, “Why should we subsidise intellectual curiosity?” with a 1790 quote from the first US president, George Washington: “There is nothing which can better deserve our patronage than the promotion of science and literature,” America’s first president said. “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.” (Tangentially, Sagan reports that Ronald and Nancy Reagan relied on an astrologer for advice in private and public matters.)

The “Maxwell and the Nerds” chapter is the one I understand least, but since these comments are getting a bit lengthy, I will conclude my comments with a few words about James Clerk Maxwell. He was a genius born in Scotland in 1831, and in 1872 became a professor in experimental physics at Cambridge. After an explanation of some mathematical equations which make no sense to me, Sagan writes this paragraph, with which I will end these comments: “The linking up of the modern world economically, culturally, and politically by broadcast towers, microwave relays, and communication satellites traces directly back to Maxwell’s judgment to include the displacement current in his vacuum equations. So does television, which imperfectly instructs and entertains us; radar, which may have been the decisive element in the Battle of Britain and in the Nazi defeat in World War II…; the control and navigation of airplanes, ships and spacecraft; radio astronomy and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence; and significant aspects of the electrical power and microelectronics industries.”

In short, gentlemen, this is a longish but high-impact, readable book.