The Daily Telegraph - Review
Smile! Tech will fix it
Bill Gates delivers that rare thing: a cheerful book about climate change, which says we can have it all. But is it wishful thinking?
HOW TO AVOID A CLIMATE DISASTER by Bill Gates 272pp, Allen Lane, T £16.99 (0844 871 1514), RRP £20, ebook £9.99
Climate change narratives tend towards doom, gloom and upheaval. Disaster is coming, and stopping it will require a fundamental reshaping of our lives, and perhaps even of the global capitalist system. That message has reached a critical mass in recent years. But as climate change has hit the mainstream agenda it has spurred some new ways of thinking from those who accept that something must be done, but who are hoping it doesn’t require a revolution. Now Bill Gates is here to tell you that you can have it all; consumption, growth and manageable sea levels. He’s just not exactly sure how yet.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster starts from Gates’s overarching belief that things are going pretty well for humankind, all told, so long as we iron out some wrinkles. In Gates’s world, climate change is definitely one of the bigger wrinkles, but still a surmountable challenge that can be met with the right policy and, most importantly, some snazzy tech fixes.
It’s easy to get exercised by the impending catastrophe of climate change. One paper released in 2019 was so doom-mongering it reportedly drove people into therapy. You’re unlikely to be similarly agitated by Gates’s book, unless you feel heart palpitations at the thought of cutting edge battery technology and smart devices (some people, I know, do). He runs through the solutions we already have in our grasp – mainly the switch to renewables and electric vehicles. There’s little in this that will surprise anyone with a vague awareness of climate policy, and quite a lot missing. His overview of food production, in particular, ignores developments in regenerative agriculture, indoor farming, and our understanding of the importance of farmland biodiversity.
Throughout the book, the narrow focus on fixing greenhouse gas emissions comes at the expense of concern over the impact on our rapidly depleting ecosystems, despite a growing recognition that the fates of the two are intertwined.
But Gates, who has worked for 20 years on projects to alleviate global poverty, is laser focused on human welfare. And having it all has to work for everyone, the developing world included. It’s not enough to work out how we feed the world on current diets in a sustainable way. We should expect the developing world to catch up with our consumption of meat and dairy, though one recent study suggests this would require six Earths.
Behaviour change is largely off the agenda here. We’re not going to substantially trim our meat consumption, drive less, or pay more for our energy, argues Gates, so there’s no point going down that route. Not only that, but we’ll have to work out how to accommodate billions more people doing the same. That leaves some big gaps to fill, for which Gates’s answer is largely technology that we don’t yet have. He is cautious here to distance himself from the idea that the climate optimists’ great white hope, direct air capture of carbon dioxide (in which he has heavily invested), is going to save us.
But he still leaves us hanging on how we’re going to meet some of the great challenges ahead of us. On chemical fertilisers, for instance, there’s no question poorer countries should be using more, though we have no way of capturing their greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite not having the answers, Gates is asking the right questions, which many of his fellow optimists tend to overlook. Two thirds of the global economy are committed to a net zero plan, and policymakers are already involved in many of the conundrums that Gates lays out: how to ensure a steady power supply as you make the switch to renewable energy; how to incentivise the use of electric vehicles; how to shift whole cities off the gas grid. But Gates is concerned with how to ensure developing countries, many of which will be worse hit by the impact of climate change created by richer nations, do not get left behind. That’s not just a moral question; without alternatives they will have no choice but to embed the same polluting behaviours as industrialised nations did. The UK may be smug about its net zero goals, and its rapid decarbonisation. But, as with a pandemic, we will eventually come to realise we’re all in it together.
ISLANDS OF ABANDONMENT by Cal Flyn
376pp, William Collins,
T £14.99 (0844 871 1514),
RRP £16.99, ebook £9.99
Islands of Abandonment is a timely book. When I started reading it, the National Trust was reporting on a year in which wildlife had been taking advantage of the Covid lockdown. Peregrine falcons had been nesting in the ruins of Corfe Castle in Dorset, grey partridges wandering in a car park near Cambridge, and a cuckoo had been heard at Osterley, in west London – for the first time in 20 years.
The following day, I caught up with a “Sunrise Sound Walk” the writer Horatio Clare had made for Radio 3, along the tidal flats on the Northumberland coast to Lindisfarne. He was struck by “the great green empty car parks all growing back with grass. It’s as though the whole world out here has been returned to the birds and the weather.”
Islands of Abandonment is about that process of return, and reclamation, happening on a larger scale and over years or decades. Cal Flyn travels to a dozen places – some of them literal islands – that are among the most desolate on earth. Humans have fled from them, because of war, or nuclear meltdown or natural disaster, or because the fish or the oil or the money ran out. Nature has taken back what once was hers and, however bad the damage, embarked on repairs.
Flyn says that what draws her attention is “not the afterglow of pristine nature disappearing over the horizon, but the narrow band of brightening sky that might indicate a fresh dawn of a new wild as, across the world, ever more land falls into abandonment.” That is partly because of falling birth rates and partly because intensive farming – whatever its environmental drawbacks – uses fewer acres.
Among places where the “new wild” can be witnessed is a buffer zone that, since 1974, has kept apart the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – a state proclaimed after a Turkish invasion and recognised only by Turkey. The Green Line has proven to be truly green. In a joint study since 2008, scientists from both sides of the fence have recorded 358 species of plants, 100 species of birds (including falcons nesting on a disused control tower), 20 reptiles and amphibians and 18 mammals.
At Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, scene of a nuclear meltdown in 1986, 70 per cent of the exclusion zone is now a forest of birch, maple and poplar. In the worst-affected
areas, radiation would have killed all mammals within hours or days, but wolves, lynx, boar, deer, elk, beavers and eagle owls have all reappeared, and in 2014 brown bears were spotted for the first time in a century. On Montserrat, in the Caribbean, where one of the eruptions of the Soufriere volcano in the 1990s entombed the town of Plymouth, the old police station is now shoulder-high with ferns; and a hotel swimming pool, filled with volcanic ash, sprouts grasses, reeds and saplings.
Flyn paints vivid pictures of these places, and, where people have hung on, or edged in, of the lives they lead. She offers sprightly introductions to such topics as succession: the process by which, over time, bare ground may become forest; domicology: the study of the life cycle of buildings; and “rapid evolution”, by which, for example, finches have developed longer beaks to make the most of garden bird-feeders. She shows how attempts to curate or manage the wild have often been misguided or disastrous, and argues that our world, though corrupted, has a great capacity to right itself – “if we can only learn to let it do so”.
What should be “a book of darkness” is instead, she says, “a story of redemption”, a story of how, “when a place has been altered beyond all recognition and all hope seems lost, it might still hold the potential for life of another kind.”
In Thicker Than Water (2016) Flyn followed to Australia an ancestor who led his fellow Scots not only into frontier country but in massacres of Aboriginal people. It was a moving and impressive debut, but her second book is more accomplished. In her acknowledgements, Flyn writes of the “nerve-wracking prospect” of taking on “a very technical, or contentious, subject with the intention of carving out a clear narrative for a mainstream audience”. She needn’t have worried: Islands of Abandonment is both clear and compelling.
TO THE LAKE by Kapka Kassabova 400pp, Granta, £9.99
Europe’s oldest lakes, Ohrid and Prespa, are linked by streams but divided by Balkan borders. Kassabova explores this contested ground in a triumphant fusion of memoir, history and travel writing.