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The System Will Not Solve the Climate Crisis Without a Push: That’s Where You Come in

This is an all hands-on-deck moment where civil society, that means you and I, need to throw everything we have into changing the politics of business as usual.

Bill Gates, billionaire, speaks onstage at 2019 New York Times Dealbook on November 06, 2019 in New York City. (Photo: Michael Cohen/Getty Images/The New York Times)

Bill Gates, billionaire, speaks onstage at 2019 New York Times Dealbook on November 06, 2019 in New York City. (Photo: Michael Cohen/Getty Images/The New York Times)

Bill Gates is the most recent billionaire to write a book on what needs to be done to solve the climate crisis. The point of his book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, is to let us know the ways that markets and technology will save us. Like so much techno-optimist thinking done by the billionaires who want to save us, it is deeply wrong. Gates writes that his “optimism about the climate comes from [his] belief in innovation.”

The reality is that all the solutions we need to have an economically viable, socially just, and sustainable future have already been engineered.

In his book Gates does a decent job talking about how investments in the right technologies will pay off and he is right that many businesses can profit from investment in new technologies and in energy savings. More good technology will make the transition easier. The engineers should keep working at breakneck speed to come up with better ways of doing things. But the reality is that all the solutions we need to have an economically viable, socially just, and sustainable future have already been engineered.

The reason we aren’t adopting those technologies at the speed needed is political, not technical. The fossil fuel industry still receives billions of dollars in subsidies. In liberal California with a ⅔ Democrat legislative majority, a new law to stop drilling near homes and playgrounds was just killed in committee. Airlines which have dragged their feet in adopting cleaner technologies received billions of dollars in COVID relief money, without needing to commit to higher emissions standards.

When asked about the value of protests by groups such as Extinction Rebellion, who often shut down traffic as a way to draw a sense of urgency to the climate crisis, Gates was quoted as saying that hopefully someone stuck in traffic used the time to invent something useful. Asked his advice for a young person concerned about the climate, Gates said they should study physics.

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When asked about politics Gates often feigns ignorance and acts as though political thinking is simply beyond him. Strange for someone with a reputation for such intelligence. Strange for someone whose path to wealth was in his ability to control markets and get the regulatory context needed to squeeze out his competitors. 

Social change isn't rocket science, but there are arts, and skills, and knowledge needed to do it effectively. It is time for everyone concerned about the climate to get involved; to learn the skills of community organizing; to step outside the comfort zone of business as usual; to not expect the politicians who are allowing business to continue as usual to change their ways because we give them more information or because we ask them nicely.

Those of us working for those changes know that we are working against an incredible headwind of the profit driven machine which continues to give decision making power to those who have bought that power.

Those of us working for those changes know that we are working against an incredible headwind of the profit driven machine which continues to give decision making power to those who have bought that power. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. It is us regular people not authorized by anyone, not experts in anything except our care for human survival, to force the government to operate in the interests of our wellbeing. We do that work by insisting, at every point where social decisions are made, that they be made in the interest of a healthy future, rather than by the inertia of a system rolling toward disaster.

It will not be easy to solve the problems we face. But if we fight against the powers that are driving those problems, it is possible for us to build a world much better than the one we lived in before this crisis developed. Keeping our attention on the possibilities of that better world and being clear eyed about what we are up against, is the only way we are going to get there. This is an all hands-on-deck moment where civil society, that means you and I, need to throw everything we have into changing the politics of business as usual.

Cynthia Kaufman

Cynthia Kaufman

Cynthia Kaufman is the author of  "The Sea is Rising and So Are We", "Challenging Power: Democracy and Accountability in a Fractured World" (2020),  "Getting Past Capitalism: History, Vision, Hope" (2012), and "Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change" (2016). She is the director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action at De Anza College. She blogs at cynthiakaufman.wordpress.com.

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