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Bill Gates’ new book, How To Avoid A Climate Disaster, is understandably drawing a lot of attention in environmentalist circles. Climate change is one of the most pressing crises of our time and–in the face of extreme weather disasters such as the 2020 California wildfires and the ice storms in Texas that caused deaths and power outages for millions for multiple days–is of increasing concern to many. Thus, the real problem is not how to avoid a future climate disaster, but how can we solve this ongoing global crisis, one that is experienced unevenly? Bill Gates seems to have an answer, but, as we shall see, his “solution” to the climate crisis is one that tries to overcome it within the confines of capitalism and imperialism; the systems that created the crisis in the first place.

Gates advances the idea that technology can solve all types of social and environmental problems and argues throughout the book that we need more innovation to solve the climate crisis. The problem, however, is that the technology already exists to solve climate change and to get to zero greenhouse gas emissions [1]. Some force is blocking the application of this technology: the capitalist system of which Gates is a representative. Under capitalism technology is only deployed when it can produce relative surplus value and higher profits. Simply put, green zero greenhouse gas technologies and energy inputs are more expensive and less profitable than fossil fuels.

Due to his class position, as a billionaire Bill Gates can’t blame capitalism itself, the system he has used to exploit workers across the world for decades. Rather, Gates argues that the capitalist state needs to step in to “fix” the “market failure” of climate change: to price fossil fuels correctly to take in account their climate and environmental impact, lower what Gates calls “Green Premiums,” and thus to create the proper conditions for so-called “green capitalism.” In this vision, the capitalist state plays a role in maneuvering through periodic economic and environmental crises that capitalism inevitably produces due to its anarchic nature. However, there is something fundamentally wrong with Gates’ argument. In an era in which the U.S. capitalist state struggles to even provide barebone stimulus checks for the people during a global pandemic and can’t even quickly pass legislation for a meager $15 an hour minimum wage–let alone a Green New Deal–there is really no hope that the capitalist state will intervene to stop the global climate catastrophe.

Even more fundamentally, however, even if social struggles and “green” capitalists like Gates forced the capitalist state to implement environmental reforms, they would not only be easily repealable but would, by leaving the capitalist system intact, not alter the fundamental driving force of climate change. Socialism is the only solution. It is politically deceiving for Gates to suggest that the capitalist system will be able to overcome the climate crisis.

Because of Gates’ prominence and wealth and the attention his book will garner from mainstream media and liberal environmentalist groupings, it will be read and used by many who genuinely want to understand the climate crisis and what to do about it. Socialists need to be able to point to and explain the limitations of Gates’ approach to climate mitigation and offer socialist solutions to climate change.

The Problem of “Green Premiums” and the Capitalist State

Gates begins the book arguing that in order to overcome the climate crisis and its worst effects we need to get to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In order for this to occur, as the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report makes clear, there first needs to be a 45 percent reduction by 2030. Greenhouse gases do not just include carbon dioxide, which is emitted through burning fossil fuel, but also methane emitted from the agricultural sector (more specifically meat production), nitrous oxide from the overuse and runoff of nitrogen fertilizers, chlorofluorocarbons, and others.

Moreover, the U.S. Pentagon is one of the largest polluters on the planet, yet the Department of Defense “has a blanket exemption from all greenhouse gas treaties” [2].

This necessary goal of zero greenhouse emissions requires massive and radical changes in all sectors of the economy, or what Gates calls, “how we plug in” (electricity generation); “how we make things” (industry and production of things of social utility like steel, concrete, and everyday commodities); “how we grow things” (agricultural production); “how we get around” (transportation sector); and “how we keep cool and stay warm” (commercial and residential sector).

Electricity generation itself contributes to 27 percent of global greenhouse emissions. One popular proposal to mitigate from the climate crisis is to electrify everything [3]. Thus, decarbonizing electricity production and the grid is paramount in the road to a post-fossil fuel age. However, there is a major barrier blocking this necessary energy transition off fossil fuels: what Gates calls “Green Premiums.” Green Premiums are the cost differences between switching to renewable green energy inputs and maintaining fossil-fuel energy inputs. Sustainable and green electricity generation would simply cost capitalists more to make and transmit electricity, and thus prices for working-class people would go up. Electricity generation does have the lowest rates of Green Premiums because solar and wind is getting cheaper slowly [4]. Yet, capitalists are slow to act, maintaining the fossil-fuel status-quo. In fact, fossil fuels continue to be used and emitted and increasingly so. As of 2020, only 17 percent of total net US electricity generation comes from renewable sources, with an additional 20 percent from nuclear.  The remaining 63 percent come from fossil fuels like natural gas and coal. Most striking is that, out of the 17 percent of renewable sources, only 1–2 percent come from solar and wind. The rest comes from hydropower [5].

The capitalist class and state certainly have the money and technological knowledge to rapidly transition off fossil fuels. However, it is simply not going to happen within the confine of capitalist relations of production. To put it simply, it is the short-termism of the profit motive that prevents the necessary energy transition. This is even more true in the age where finance capital is the dominant form of capital. Any energy transition within capitalism will require huge investment from the big banks and financiers. However, as Andreas Malm, who studies the integral relationship between capitalism and fossil fuels, says: “the dynamics of financialisation have made private investors utterly unfit to bankroll a transition, the chase for instant profit taking them ever further from a super grid or an offshore farm. When the average stock is owned for a mere twenty‐two seconds, why would they underwrite a long‐term project for exploiting [renewables] with little in the way of guaranteed revenues” [6]?

Another problem is that the Green Premiums for the steel and cement industry are even higher than electricity generation. Decarbonizing these industries would go a long way in getting to zero greenhouse gas emissions as steel production alone contributes to 7-9 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. The point being is that if electricity generation—the easiest sector to decarbonize—is struggling to decarbonize within capitalism, then the other necessary sectors will struggle even more too.

For market-based thinkers such as Gates, fossil fuel energy inputs remain cheaper than green renewable alternatives because there is a sort of “market failure” of accounting for the true environmental costs of the use of fossil fuels. As Gates puts it, the prices of fossil fuels “don’t factor in the true cost of climate change—the economic damage they inflict by making the planet warmer—it’s harder for clean energy sources to compete with them” [7]. These are costs that are “externalized” to the broader society. Historically, “externalities” such as air pollution from fossil fuel powered industries primarily affect working class and poor people–especially those of oppressed nationalities who disproportionately live next to such industries.

Debunking the details of Gates’ deception

Gates’ solution to these market-based problems is to turn to governmental policies. In order to fix this market failure and the problem the state needs to intervene in order to tinker with market forces and to help shape prices accordingly. Gates says, “government policies matter” and indeed they do. However, his call that it is now “time to turn our policy-making experience to the challenge at hand: zeroing out our greenhouse gas emissions,” is politically misleading and naïve at best [8]. Gates thinks Green Premiums can be reduced to zero through a series of government policies:

  1. In his typical technocratic style Bill Gates writes, “Although we have a number of cost-competitive low-carbon solutions today, we still don’t have all the technologies we need to get to zero emissions globally” [9]. Though it is true that technologies exist today to rapidly get off fossil fuels en masse there are still some key technologies that need to be developed further such as how to green steel and cement production. This would require creating governmental policies that increase public spending on Research and Development of green technologies. Gates points out that energy capitalists only spend an average of just 0.3 percent of their revenue on energy R&D. This is because newer green technologies do not guarantee a profit for them like fossil-fuel powered technologies provide. The role of the state, then, “is to invest in R&D when the private sector won’t because it can’t see how it will make a profit. Once it becomes clear how a company can make money, the private sector takes over” [10]. Essentially, the state subsidizes the capitalists so they can continue to make profits.
  2. Creating policies that “level the playing field” between renewables and fossil fuels. This includes creating a “carbon-tax” which increases the price of fossil fuels to take in account the environmental damage they cause. Any price increases will inevitably fall upon the already indebted working class that works paycheck to paycheck. Indeed, this would indeed be disastrous as it would raise the monthly costs of things such as: driving to and from work, gas and electric bills, and many other products that are used on a daily basis as there are products that we use every day that are derived from petroleum hydrocarbons such as: cosmetics, clothing, gum, Aspirin, etc. [11].
  3. Providing incentives and better informing homeowners and property owners of the economic benefits from switching to green forms of energy such as solar panels. However, no amount of education and information will make green methods of cooling and heating truly economically feasible to working-class homeowners who are already strapped. For example, this would require stripping all natural-gas furnaces in homes and replacing them with renewable-powered electric floorboards. Landlords really have no incentive to upgrade their properties to have green energy systems because, as even Gates himself admits, “they pass the energy bills on to their tenants” [12].
  4. Policy makers need to prepare for a “Just Transition.” Many fossil fuel jobs are “good-paying jobs.” With an energy transition off fossil fuels obviously these workers will be affected. Gates vaguely says that the federal government needs to provide “funding and technical advice” to deal with these issues [13]. How can the capitalist state really ensure a “Just Transition” when education and a job are not constitutional rights? In the former Soviet Union, both were enshrined as constitutional rights so when a worker was displaced from the production process due to a new technology being implemented, the worker was re-trained for free and was placed in a new job. Without these rights it would be impossible to ensure a “Just Transition.”

If these semi-social democratic governmental policies that Gates lays out were enacted, it would indeed require fierce and large-scale social struggles given the current stance of the U.S. ruling class. Even if they were implemented, like all reforms, they would be under constant threat of attack. Moreover, they are neither enough to adequately deal with the climate crisis nor are good for working-class and oppressed people. To put it bluntly, Gates’ approach to “solving” the ongoing climate crisis is trapped within capitalist and market-based “solutions.”

As we move closer to the 2030 deadline to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent, Gates’ proposed policies become less and less viable due to the intensity and speed with which we will need to accomplish an energy transition. It is obvious that there needs to be despotic inroads made on fossil capital. Fossil capital cannot be allowed to exist any longer. The US capitalist state will not act against the class interests of oil and fossil fuel capitalists and force them to stop producing and transporting fossil fuels. Tina Landis puts it clearly:

“The very purpose of the U.S. government is to protect the interests of the ruling class. The courts act in favor of corporations’ rights over those of society. When an environmental regulation is proposed, the regulation must be ‘economically feasible’ for     corporations to implement—meaning environmental protections only occur when they align with profits or when there is a mass sustained people’s movement demanding     them, and only insofar as the movement’s activists do not impede the profit-making apparatus” [14]

Socialist revolution is the only solution to the crisis

What it really comes down to is Gates’ technocratic solutions. He tell us that through innovation and technology any challenge can be overcome. While new technologies, technological practices, and ecological transformations can absolutely renew and revive our relationship with the Earth, this is impossible under the laws of capitalism.

We can’t understand technology without understanding the social relations that technology functions within [15]. Technology under capitalist social relations of production solely exists to create relative surplus value for capital. If green energy inputs and technologies cannot produce profits above existing energy production processes for a significant sector of the capitalist energy sector,  they will simply not be deployed. There are other additional challenges to implementing these reforms, most notably that the existing power of this sector and its lobbying capacity enables it to write legislation in order to protect their profits. It even allows them to dictate who sits on the regulatory boards overseeing them, or even to put their own former executives on these boards.

Jennifer M. Granholm, President Biden’s recent appointment to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, has the endorsement of Bracewell, a law and lobbying firm that defends energy corporations in “criminal, civil and regulatory investigations or prosecutions” [16]. Bracewell recently represented Wells Fargo in the restructuring of Extraction, a Denver-based company that their press release says is “focused on developing and producing crude oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids in the Denver-Julesburg Basin of Colorado” [17]. In a Washington Post article announcing her nomination, Bracewell partner Scott Segal said Graham “is well positioned to run DOE” [18].

Granholm was the Governor of Michigan from 2003-2011, during which time she signed the first water technologies partnership between a U.S. state and the apartheid state of Israel. While the Flint water crisis was a systemic problem of privatization and neglect, and while it is most directly linked to her successor, Republican Rick Snyder, a 2010 federal audit of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Water Bureau found that the organization at the time “disinvested from assigning violations if a system does not include the reporting form with LCR [Lead Copper Rule] samples that describes site-selection criteria and reasons for sampling-site changes” [19]. The audit indicates that the agency’s budget was cut by $300,000 between 2009-2010 and that lead testing “practice does not meet the requirements of Federal Regulations.”

Under the dictates of capitalism, the bosses rule over the production process as dictators. They have all the power to appropriate the surplus product that is produced by workers, dictate what is produced within the production process and how, at what pace, and which energy inputs are used in production, etc. All of these things can be broadly understood as the labor process under capitalism, which is dictated and fundamentally structured by the alien powers of the profit motive and cost. We need socialism to overcome the climate crisis because in a socialist society humanity will finally be freed from those alien powers the capitalist market produces. Excuses like, “we cannot go green because it is not cost competitive,” won’t make any sense. Under socialism, things of social utility are produced not for profit, but for use. Thus, the logics that shape the labor process will be fundamentally different. Without the pressures of the profit motive, rapid changes to how we energize production and social reproduction will finally be possible.

Under a socialist mode of production surplus product will not be appropriated by individual capitalists but will instead be democratically controlled by workers themselves. The surplus will be used to tear down the fossil fuel energy regime and its infrastructure and to deploy and build green infrastructures with existing technologies. Reparations could be paid to Global South countries in the form of green technologies and infrastructures. Additionally, the surplus will also be used to provide even more opportunities for research, development and deployment of new green technologies and infrastructures. In fact, socialism provides the necessary foundations to fund even more R&D than currently exists. Scientists, engineers, and doctors will have more funding and resources to research and develop ways to make life better. Pointing this out will help get more engineers, scientists, doctors, etc., on the side of socialism. Socialism is truly the only viable social system to get to zero greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, Ken Hammond points out that China–a country that is working seriously to develop eco-socialism despite the contradictions–has taken the lead globally in investing in, developing, and distributing green zero emission energy sources [20].

The working class will lead the transition off fossil fuels and capitalism

The latent social power of the working class exists at all times. Workers can shut the production and labor process down through the traditional strike method, workplace occupations, etc. These tactics can be used to force an energy transition.

A central tenet in Marxism is that only the organized force of the working class and the oppressed can overthrow capitalism. If organized workers can become revolutionary climate actors, we can liberate humanity from the climate crisis and capitalism. Due to the working class’s objective position in relation to the means of production, we are able to see and understand the necessity of transitioning off fossil fuels and capitalism.

The vast majority of people in capitalist society are working-class, whether they’re employed or not. And because workers are the vast majority we have immense power. Such a revolution, Marx says in Capital, entails the “expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people” [21].

Working-class and oppressed people see and suffer the effects of climate change at both work and home, especially those in the Global South and of oppressed nationalities. The seeds and potential of more workers having a revolutionary socialist consciousness and understanding of the climate crisis are there, they just have to be cultivated, and Gates’ book serves to work against such cultivation.

References

[1] Landis, Tina. 2020. Climate Solutions Beyond Capitalism (San Francisco: Liberation Media), pp. 33-35.
[2] Yang, Judi. 2019. “Pentagon’s Endless War brings Endless Pollution.” Liberation News, July 19. Available here.
[3] Roberts, David. 2017. “The Key to Tackling Climate Change: Electrify Everything.” Vox, October 27. Available here.
[4] “Changing America’s entire electricity system to zero-carbon sources would raise average retail rates by between 1.3 and 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, roughly 15 percent more than what most people pay now.” Bill Gates. 2021. How To Avoid A Climate Disaster (New York: Random House), p. 72.
[5] Energy Information Administration. 2020. “Electricity Explained: Electricity in the United States.” Available here.
[6] Malm, Andreas. 2016. Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (New York: Verso), pp. 380‐381.
[7] Gates, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, p. 74.
[8] Ibid., 182.
[9] Ibid., 199.
[10] Ibid., 185.
[11] Huber, Matt. 2016. “The Carbon Tax is Doomed.” Jacobin. Available here.
[12] Gates, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, p. 187.
[13] Ibid., p. 188.
[14] Landis, Climate Solutions Beyond Capitalism, p. 56.
[15] Hernandez, Estevan, John Prysner, and Derek Ford. 2019, “A Marxist Approach to Technology.” Liberation School, December 9. Available here.
[16]  Bracewell. no date. “Government Enforcement Investigations.” Available here.
[17]  Bracewell. 2021, Jan. 25. “Bracewell Represents Wells Fargo in Extraction Oil & Gas Financial Restructuring.” Available here.
[18] Englund, Will, Juliet Eilperin, and Dino Grandoni. 2020, Dec. 15. Biden to Name Granholm as Energy Secretary. Washington Post, December 15. Available here.
[19] U. S. Environmental Protection Agency Public Water System Supervision Program. 2010. “Program Review for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Water Bureau.” Available here.
[20] Hammond, Ken. 2020, “China’s Environmental Problems: Beyond the Propaganda.” Liberation School, December 8. Available here.
[21] Marx, Karl. 1967. Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, vol. 1 (New York: International Publishers), 715.

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