COVID-19 is awful. Climate change could be worse.

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Contributed date

August 6, 2020 - 2:57pm

Critical Commentary

This blog post written by Microsoft Billionaire, Bill Gates, discusses the societal costs of COVID-19 and warns that the impending damage from climate change will be much worse. However, he does not necessarily have a pessimistic tone. Instead he focuses on what we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic to better prevent and prepare for future climate disasters.

This post involves and addresses numerous scales and systems identified as important to the study of Energy in COVID-19.

META: The article represents an increasingly common rhetorical move of comparing climate change to COVID-19 as a more proximate and faster paced disaster. Therein, Gates renders the less visible, (not-so-distant) future perils of climate change more legible, using similie to give them a greater sense of reality.

MACRO: Gates discusses the impact of lock downs on global carbon emissions. According to the IEA, emissions were reduced by 8% (47 billion tons of carbon). And yet, according to Gates, it is important to recognize the cost at which these emissions were saved in order to reflect on the degree to which we have to change our current global energy system in order to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions and prevent the worst of climate change scenarios. "To put it mildly, this is not a situation that anyone would want to continue. And yet we are still on track to emit 92 percent as much carbon as we did last year. What’s remarkable is not how much emissions will go down because of the pandemic, but how little."

Thus Gates shifts the conversation to "costs per ton of carbon." Gates notes that economists have calculated the social costs of carbon at $100/ton. He compares this to the cost per ton of carbon reduced in the US by the economic shutdowns, which are somewhere between $3,200 and $5,400 per ton.

BIO: Currently, COVID-19 is killing people at an annual rate of 14/100,000. Gates brings this into comparison with the projected moralities resulting from climate change, which, in the worse case scenarios are expected to be upwards of 73/100,000 people within the next 40 years. With substantial carbon reductions, these deaths could be reduced to 10/100,000. This sounds much better than 73, but remember, it's only 4 deaths per 100,000 residents less than the current death tolls we are seeing around the world.

DEUTERO: “If we learn the lessons of COVID-19, we can approach climate change more informed about the consequences of inaction.” Gates spends the latter half of his post discussing the lessons we should learn from the way COVID-19 has been handled and the implications of all of this for acting now to prevent or attenuate the damage of future climate disasters. His general advice boils down to three points: 1) let science and innovation lead the way, 2) develop solutions that work for richer and poorer countries alike, 3) start taking action now.


Gates, Bill. 2020. “COVID-19 Is Awful. Climate Change Could Be Worse.” Blog. Gatesnotes.Com. August 4, 2020.

Group Audience

Cite as

Bill Gates, "COVID-19 is awful. Climate change could be worse.", contributed by James Adams, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 6 August 2020, accessed 17 August 2022.