Bill Gates’ new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, isn’t the zealous neoliberal diatribe one might expect from a billionaire. There’s no doubt his proposed solutions operate according to the logics of capitalism, but Gates does support a significant role for government in addressing climate change. He calls for government investment in research and development, planning a just transition, and fixing market failures. Gates knows that the private sector cannot decarbonise on its own.

“In general,” he writes, “the government’s role is to invest in R&D when the private sector won’t because it can’t see how it will make a profit.” He understands the limits of our economy dominated by profit and recognises the potential of government purchasing power to drive innovation by creating demand for new green technologies. It is unsurprising, though, given his status as one of the wealthiest men in human history, that Gates does not take these analyses to their logical conclusion that to decisively address the climate crisis we must remove the profit motive from the economy by expanding the public sector. It would be naive to expect such ambitions from even the most thoughtful billionaire. Their absence, however, underlines the hard limits of what Gates can bring to the climate debate.

Gates is no market fundamentalist, but he is fixated on market-based solutions: “The only solution I could imagine was to make clean energy so cheap that every country would choose it over fossil fuels.” This says more about the limits of Gates’ imagination than the solutions available to us. By focusing primarily on the cost of green technologies, he misunderstands the nature of the crisis. Climate change is not one big market failure to be fixed with the right tweaks to the status quo. Fossil fuel extraction and carbon emissions are baked into the foundations of capitalism. Fossil capital exerts serious political power to maintain its dominance in the economy with the support of other fractions of capital like finance (even as these companies line up to grab the headlines of a spurious ‘net-zero 2050’ target). For every country to choose renewables over fossil fuels, there must be an almighty confrontation with fossil capital, and reorganisation of who wields power in the economy.

Gates views climate change primarily as a technical challenge. Though he makes (unimaginative) suggestions for individual and consumer action, we’re left with the impression that he’d prefer that business and government were left alone to deal with climate change with minimal interference by ordinary people. Although he occasionally uses the word ‘justice’, it is obviously not his priority. Suspending concern for questions of power and justice, though, the book is worth reading for the accessible technical detail. Gates is most persuasive when arguing for the importance of nuclear fission in the energy mix, and the formula of electrification plus decarbonisation for manufacturing, transport and heating.

His ‘five questions to ask in every climate conversation’ cover proportions of global emissions, cement, power, space, and cost. It’s a useful framework for technical climate debates, but there’s a justice-shaped hole: how are workers affected? Does this reproduce social harms? Who profits? Gates’ vision can be summarised as ‘maintain the status quo but make it zero-carbon’. His proposals for transport underline this. By focusing on the potential of electric vehicles to simply replace private cars, he ignores the scarcity of necessary rare earth minerals and their injustice-laden supply chains. Indeed, he seems more concerned about defending his penchant for private jets than expanding public transport. Bill Gates is not interested in transforming the economy or society. Though he fancies himself an optimistic technocratic, he’s more of a delusional ideologue.

Chris Saltmarsh is a co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal. His first book, Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice will be published by Pluto Press in September 2021.