So what are we to make of a guy who completely ignored climate change until 2006, only decided to ‘do more and speak out more’ in 2015, whilst continuing to invest huge sums of money in Big Oil and other carbon-intensive companies, has one of the most carbon-intensive lifestyles of any human being on the planet, but is now putting himself forward as the go-to, high-profile guru intent on telling us all what we must do now, at this very late stage, to sort out the Climate Emergency?

That guy is of course Bill Gates, author of the already hugely-hyped ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’. And we should of course welcome him to the party: far better to have him on the side of the angels, however belatedly, than for him to continue as one of the world’s wealthiest bystanders. For those US politicians who see climate change as a leftist agenda purpose-built to undermine the US economy, a lecture from Bill Gates on the urgency of the challenge may prove to be exactly what they need.

To be fair, there’s quite a lot of good stuff in the book. In the opening chapters, he provides a handy retelling of ‘Climate Change for Dummies’, unapologetically playing the geek card, and in later chapters, he provides some really interesting reflections on the so-called ‘hard-to-abate’ sectors like steel and concrete. And his passionate advocacy for massively accelerated R&D programmes (from both government and the private sector) is impressive.

Indeed, ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’ is essentially a paean of praise for the power of innovation – especially innovation delivered in the style of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and his very own ‘Breakthrough Energy’ initiative which has invested in more than 40 ‘cutting edge companies’. It’s often impossible to tell when he’s providing more-or-less impartial commentary or subtle promotional material for his own particular techno-fixes.

It’s all in the tone. On prospects for nuclear power, for instance, his words read like the literary equivalent of a wet dream. On solar, wind and other renewables, you can almost hear him yawning between the lines. Renewables are pretty much dismissed as ‘the easy stuff’ – and it would seem he has no idea whatsoever of the revolutionary impact of this transformation going on in electricity supply systems all around the world. The fact that many independent commentators and experts are now anticipating the possibility of more than 50% of global electricity coming from renewables by 2030 has not as yet impinged on the Bill Gates view of the world.

That may well be because he’s a software engineer and not an economist. One of the ‘big ideas’ in ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’ is what he calls ‘the green premium’ – the difference in price between today’s carbon-intensive technologies and tomorrow’s more expensive, low-carbon technologies. He argues convincingly that one of the most useful things policymakers can do is to prioritise ways of eliminating those green premiums, so that conventional market forces can more effectively deliver scaled, zero carbon outcomes. He’s right. But he applies this ‘Gates Rule’ with a startling lack of consistency.

For instance, there’s not a single word of criticism about the role of the oil and gas sector over the last 30 years, and not a single reference to the insanity of continuing multi-billion-dollar subsidies to this and other carbon-intensive sectors. We have to wait until 20 pages before the end of the book to get even a passing reference to the need to ‘put a proper price on carbon’, and he totally ignores the historical system failure in allowing all these sectors to go on externalising the cost of their greenhouse gas emissions onto the environment and future generations. The reason we see such problematic ‘green premiums’ today is that politicians have totally failed to force emitters to internalise those costs – which would have done more than anything to provide a level playing field for low and zero carbon alternatives.

Intriguingly, he doesn’t extend his ‘green premium’ analysis to his advocacy of nuclear power. In fact, he never mentions the cost of nuclear power, perhaps because the ‘green premium’ here would be literally too big to calculate? Instead, time after time, he erroneously describes nuclear power as a ‘zero carbon option’, providing entirely ‘carbon-free electricity’ into the system. Does he do that deliberately, I wonder, or just out of free-wheeling carelessness?

Back in 2008, Bill Gates set up a company called TerraPower to investigate the feasibility of a new ‘travelling wave reactor’, using molten salt as a coolant. Thirteen years on, he tells us that TerraPower is still ‘years away from breaking ground’ on a prototype reactor, but TerraPower’s promotional material is still promising people that its reactors will cost no more than $1bn a pop, with ‘hundreds of these reactors around the world solving multiple different energy needs’ by 2050.

Aside from the hype, it must be humbling for Bill to have to tout his nuclear wares (like any other crazy inventor) on Capitol Hill, begging-bowl in hand, looking for hundreds of millions of dollars of public money on top of the $80 million he received last year. After the collapse of his partnership with CNNC (a 100% Government-owned Chinese company, that’s big on both nuclear weapons and nuclear power), you have to ask why he isn’t prepared to cover 100% of the development costs himself out of his $125bn personal fortune? Or at least recruit other devotees of nuclearised snake oil on Wall Street?

As with all proponents of a still distant nuclear renaissance, Gates is contemptuous of the single most important element of any low-carbon strategy – namely, energy efficiency. His wording here is such a giveaway: ‘I used to scoff at the notion that using power more efficiently would make a dent in climate change. I haven’t abandoned that view entirely, but I did soften it when I realised just how much land it would take to generate lots more electricity from solar and wind.’ So the only thing that helped this fabled engineer to get his head around the importance of energy efficiency was the fact that solar power will take up a small fraction of available land!

If he’s that worried about land use, there are plenty of critics out there who believe that Bill Gates would be well-advised to look to his own extensive farming land bank of around 250,000 hectares.

As is often the case with pro-nuclear advocates, Gates is also a big fan of GMOs and high-tech intensive mono-cropping. Since 2006, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, imposing America’s disastrous model of genetically-modified, carbon-intensive and chemically-enhanced farming onto poor African farmers, promising to boost incomes for 30 million small farmers by 2020, while cutting food insecurity in half. That didn’t go too well: an investigation into AGRA’s performance has concluded that the number of Africans suffering extreme hunger has increased by 30% in the 18 countries that the Foundation targeted.

Predictably, against that backdrop of inappropriate neo-colonial ‘innovation’, the sections on farming and land in ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’ are predictably upbeat, but they tell us very little about the huge changes in food and farming practice that will be necessary to reduce to zero the 19% of greenhouse gas emissions for which ‘growing things’ (in his own words) is responsible.

Bill Gates is certainly ‘an ideas man’, and some of those ideas are really very good. But he is so unreconstructedly part of the yesterday’s technocratic ‘command and control paradigm’, endlessly manipulating the dominating the natural world to keep the wheels of commerce turning. That may help slow the onset of a climate disaster, but it absolutely won’t help us to avoid it.