Bill Gates Talks About Climate Change

In the March 27 issue of Rolling Stone, Jeff Goodell interviews Bill Gates on issues ranging from polio to Edward Snowden to climate change. 

Goodell describes this world’s wealthiest person as perhaps also its most optimistic because he sees the world is a giant operating system that just needs to be debugged. The idea that animates his life is that the code for these problems can be rewritten and  errors can be fixed. "Huge systems – whether it’s Windows 8, global poverty or climate change – can be improved if you have the right tools and the right skills. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the philanthropic organization with a $36 billion endowment that he runs with his wife, is like a giant startup whose target market is human civilization."

Here is the excerpt about climate change.

Goodell: Let’s talk about climate change. Many scientists and politicians see it as the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced.

Bill Gates

Gates: It’s a big challenge, but I’m not sure I would put it above everything. One of the reasons it’s hard is that by the time we see that climate change is really bad, your ability to fix it is extremely limited. Like with viruses, the problem is latency. The carbon gets up there, but the heating effect is delayed. And then the effect of that heat on the species and ecosystem is delayed. That means that even when you turn virtuous, things are actually going to get worse for quite a while.

Right . . . we’re not virtuous yet, are we?

We’re not even close – we’re emitting more CO2 every year. In order to get a 90% reduction of carbon, which is what we need, the first thing you might want to get is a year of global reduction, and we have not had that. US emissions are down right now, partly because we buy more goods from overseas. But even if you invented some zero-carbon energy source today, the deployment of that magic device would take a long time.

Are you hopeful that global climate talks will lead to a solution?

Many climate change discussions are off-target because they focus on things like the $100 billion per year that some people believe should be spent by the rich world to help the developing world, which is not really addressing the problem.

At the same time, discussion about how to increase funding of research-and-development budgets to accelerate innovation is surprisingly missing. We haven’t increased R&D spending, we haven’t put a price signal [like a carbon tax] in, and this is certainly very disappointing.

I think it’s a real test of the boundary of science and politics – and an acid test of people’s time horizons. Before the economic downturn, attitudes in the US about climate change had become quite enlightened, and then there was a big reversal, which I believe was a result of people’s worries about their immediate economic situation. Talking about problems that will have a significant effect 30 or 40 years out just gets off the agenda, and there’s this shrill political debate that is distracting people. So we’ve made some progress, but you can’t take the progress we’ve made and linearize it – if you do, you really are going to find out how bad climate change can be.

Let’s say climate change was delayed 100 years. If that were the case, science would take care of this one. We wouldn’t have to double the Department of Energy budget, because there’s five or six different paths to go down. And 100 years, at the current rate and speed of science, is a long time.

We’re heading for big trouble, right?

Absolutely. That’s why I happen to think we should explore geoengineering.­ But one of the complaints people have against that is that if it looks like an easy out, it’ll reduce the political will to cut emissions. If that’s the case, then, hey, we should take away heart surgery so that people know not to overeat. I happened to be having dinner with Charles Koch last Saturday, and we talked a little bit about climate change.

And what was the conversation like?

He’s a very nice person, and he has this incredible business track record. He was pointing out that the US alone can’t solve the problem, and that’s factually correct. But you have to view the US doing something as a catalyst for getting China and others to do things. The atmosphere is the ultimate commons. We all benefit from it, and we’re all polluting it. It’s amazing how few problems there are in terms of the atmosphere. . . . There’s just this one crazy thing that CO2 hangs around for a long, long time, and the oceans absorb it, which acidifies them, which is itself a huge problem we should do something about.

Like cut carbon emissions fast.

Yes, but people need energy. It’s a gigantic business. The main thing that’s missing in energy is an incentive to create things that are zero-CO2-emitting and that have the right scale and reliability characteristics.

It leads to your interest in nuclear power, right?

If you could make nuclear really, really safe, and deal with the economics, deal with waste, then it becomes the nirvana you want: a cheaper solution with very little CO2 emissions.

If we don’t get that, you’ve got a problem. Because you are not going to reduce the amount of energy used. For each year between now and 2100, the globe will use more energy. So that means more CO2 emissions every year.

TerraPower, which is the nuclear energy company I’m backing, required a very long time to get the right people together, it required computer modeling to get the right technology together, and even now it’s going to require the US government to work with whatever country decides to build a pilot project – China, maybe. In a normal sort of private market, that project probably wouldn’t have emerged. It took a fascination with science, concern about climate change and a very long-term view. Now, I’m not saying it’s guaranteed to be successful, although it’s going super, super well, but it’s an example of an innovation that might not happen without the proper support.

Nuclear power has failed to fulfill its promises for a variety of economic and technical reasons for 40 years. Why continue investing in nuclear power instead of, say, cheap solar and energy storage?

Well, we have a real problem, and so we should pursue many solutions to the problem. Even the Manhattan Project pursued both the plutonium bomb and the uranium bomb – and both worked! Intermittent energy sources [like wind and solar] . . . yeah, you can crank those up, depending on the quality of the grid and the nature of your demand. You can scale that up 20%, 30% and, in some cases, even 40%. But when it comes to climate change, that’s not interesting. You’re talking about needing factors of, like, 90%.

But you can’t just dismiss renewables, can you?

Solar is much, much harder than people think it is. When the sun shines, electricity is going to be worth zero, so all the money will be reserved for the guy who brings you power when there’s no wind and no sun.

There are some interesting things on the horizon along those lines. There’s one called solar chemical. It’s very nascent, but it comes with a built-in storage solution, because you actually secrete hydrocarbons. We’re investing probably one-twentieth of what we should in that. There’s another form of solar called solar thermal, which is cool because you can store heat. Heat’s not easy to store, but it’s a lot easier to store than electricity.

Given the scale of problems like climate change and the slow economic recovery and political gridlock and rising health care costs, it’s easy for people to feel pessimistic about the way the world is going.

Really? That’s too bad. I think that’s overly focusing on the negatives. I think it’s a pretty bright picture, myself. But that doesn’t mean I think, because we’ve always gotten through problems in the past, "just chill out, relax, someone else will worry about it." I don’t see it that way.

I think we will get our act together on climate change. That’s very important. I hope we get our act together on large-scale terrorism and avoid that being a huge setback for the world. On health equity, we can reduce the number of poor children who die from more than 6 million down to 2 million, eventually 1 million. Will the US political system right itself in terms of how it focuses on complex problems? Will the medical costs overwhelm the sense of what people expect government to do?

What do you say to people who argue that America’s best days are behind us?

That’s almost laughable. The only definition by which America’s best days are behind it is on a purely relative basis. That is, in 1946, we made up about 6% of humanity, but we dominated everything. But America’s way better today than it’s ever been. Say you’re a woman in America, would you go back 50 years? Say you’re gay in America, would you go back 50 years? Say you’re sick in America, do you want to go back 50 years? I mean, who are we kidding?

Our modern lifestyle is not a political creation. Before 1700, everybody was poor as hell. Life was short and brutish. It wasn’t because we didn’t have good politicians; we had some really good politicians. But then we started inventing – electricity, steam engines, microprocessors, understanding genetics and medicine and things like that. Yes, stability and education are important – I’m not taking anything away from that – but innovation is the real driver of progress.

Read the whole interview and a 2010 interview specifically on climate change:

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Comments on “Bill Gates Talks About Climate Change”

  1. Simon Simbo

    I am very happy to see this page as it promotes conservation.As the world is getting hotter, we as human being with God given unique brain, we must come up with solution to prevent gobal warming.As we know we are in a Global village which one cause affets all of us.With that in Mind while being a student I am involving in promoting Ecotourism.The main objective is to preserve nature as I see in my are trees are cuting down or making garden, houses, loging as the population increase.They do not have a pity at all to the environment.I believe the little I do to protect environment will help to serve the my country and world as a world.I am very facinaed o see a high profile and well known person like Bill Gates involved heavily on protaction of the environment.For my case I am taking intitiative with self help with people at home.However, I wish I am in partnershiping with organisations or people who have same vision to protect our forest so that we save the worl. I can be Email, we go along I will share my exprinces amd projects of pictures I involved so you may be one of those to hepl make the goal come through.

  2. Sam Timor

    People should print this interview out, and take as their script as they call their congress people. One can’t just read this and say good! You have to DO something about it!

  3. Citizen99

    I think Gates is a little too sanguine about high-tech solutions (as one might expect), but at least he appreciates the scope of the challenge, which many environmentalists do not. I agree that we need to pursue many, many avenues including ones that haven’t even been created yet. The only way to make that happen is with a carbon tax, as James Hansen has been saying for years. That is the only way to drive the needed innovation without driving down the price of fossil fuels.

  4. TheLightedLamp

    I don’t know if our science community is formulating a medicine, electronic device, radiation or just anything that could change the human mind perception of life. I mean, in an instant. A sudden twist of how we perceive things. I have my work in Tacloban City where typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) displayed actual effects I thought only in fiction movies projected to happen.
    Anyway, thanks to all the great people that devotes their lives for humanity and for humanity to work together.
    I am just concerned when Sir Gates said that science might be too late.
    Thank you so much. Let us just do something no matter how small.

  5. Paul M. Suckow

    Doing what we can and must do to avoid dangerous human interference in the climate system has united us on this page. Simon working on ecotourism in Papua, New Guinea; Sam in the U.S.; Citizen 99 referring to the preeminent voice in the science of climate change, Dr. James E. Hansen, who is able to work more as he wishes now after retiring from NASA; and having recently returned myself and my family from a short tour of the more devastated islands in the Philippines, due not only the typhoon but also the major earthquake on Bohol, thank you to the guiding light who is working inside Tacloban City, R.P. Our group was not able to visit inside Tacloban because of a supposed security threat (all prisoners had just dispersed because of lack of food), as well as the sheer difficulty still in getting there – our flight in was cancelled that day…but on northern Cebu, southern Leyte, and on Bohol I have never seen so many people living in UNICEF tents pitched right beside their own damaged and destroyed houses. The sight of once beautiful “chocolate hills” now slumped and broken is painful in my memory. Yet, all of you appear on the same page where reporting about Bill Gates interview covering climate change displayed both his realism and hopefulness about extremely large and tightly interwoven but not insurmountable challenges.

    Reasons Bill Gates gave for holding onto optimism (beyond purely personal ones we invent for him, like being a most influential wealthy person and having a grand view of technological and financial possibilities) are important for each of us to catch as well.

    We all need to maintain an appropriately long-term view of both the problem of global heating, or in more scientific terms, enhanced greenhouse effect, and its solutions. As I’ve modeled the type of carbon fee spent as a dividend back to the people’s wallets which Dr. Hansen advocates, I’ve watched scenarios develop in which a tiny sliver of wealth that penalizes fossil-carbon fuels which create unwanted pollutants…consistently a fraction of a percent of GDP…leads not only to eventual retirement of fossil fuel burning in the open atmosphere but also to a greater, in constant dollars, per capita income from the innovative growth of GDP much faster than even the rapid growth of population during the first half of the current millennium.

    Assuming population growth leads us, as it does other species blooms such as new aquatic predators filling Lake Michigan or deer multiplying to fill a newly enriched forest, to an “S” shaped power curve rather than an apocalyptic peak then immediate shrinkage to fit a permanently diminished environmental carrying capacity, there is great hope in Bill Gates words. Never before have there been so many hands to work the till, so many brilliant minds to offer guidance, moderation and reconciliation. Indeed, if modeled trends can be believed, a small carbon fee starting out around 3 cents per gallon oil equivalent and rising slowly for hundreds of years can certainly not only end our primary reliance on dwindling fossil fuels but potentially end poverty as the world knows it to boot, during the first half of the next century. How evenly this productivity windfall in GDP growth occurs across the global population will very much shape its ultimate benefit to humanity, but it does appear to give reason to believe in ourselves and our future generations.

    The key is not in immediate cessation of fossil fuel use but in a significant immediate start ramping it downward. I’ve looked at about 5% per year in perpetuity… 5% increase in the proposed fee and rebate, approximately matching negative growth (-5%) in fossil fuel burning each year to reach well below 90% of today’s use by around the time human population sustainably reaches 14-15 billion on Earth. Just as today few would consider it economic to burn intact old growth hardwood as a fuel, so must and I believe inevitably will petroleum’s capabilities come to be valued. We need only find and scale petroleum’s future equivalents of fine hardwood furnishings in lieu of burnt firewood.

    Whether a price on fossil carbon-based fuels leads us to finally crack the problem of safe and inexpensive breeder reactors that turn today’s nuclear waste albatross into a flight of beautiful doves of hope through a long and prosperous, nonpolluting future civilization, I cannot say. But I think the vast majority of reasonable people alive today will understand that pricing fossil carbon will bend the long arc of climate trends back toward safety and justice for all. Without the price signal simultaneously enhancing means to spread wealth to, potentially, everyone on earth we have no hope of seeing climate justice in future lifetimes. And structuring that price signal as a fee that is recycled directly back to the public – as supplemental income to be spent according to the best wisdom that sovereign individuals can muster, rather than as a tax that hungry governments lust after, deign and fight to maintain – this fee and rebate is the way to harness for greatest good the convergence, synergy and innovation that is rushing toward us and our children.

    Spreading the windfall of a world where no man or woman need labor except as brings them happiness, where there literally IS enough to go around for every person, and enough extra to purchase good education, sound cities and luxury past generations could scarcely hope to conceive will become seen as a moral imperative. It may be that our Philippine light above is correct, that the future of all humanity will turn on a dime, or in a day and a night as did the city of Tacloban when the blasts of Yolanda stripped the trees and tore away untold thousands with angry waters. It may be that one hundred years from now, with a steady, sustainable human diet of just under 2000 watts of energy per person, consistent reduction in fossil fuel use and consistent increase in the cost of those fuels which together annually provide the same few trillion constant dollars’ benefits spread quite evenly across the vast public are as much a given in global society as is the public provision of basic education and sanitation measures today. It may well be that a greater share of mind and worry and even money is then spent on problems of benefitting from and limiting unintended damages of a globally integrated, by any measure self-cognizant, living and growing super-intelligence apart from any human mind, even the minds of persons who have joined IT upon their natural deaths. But that is pure conjecture and science fiction today; science fact will prove so much more amazing, I trust.

    Fortunately, we humans have had centuries of practice dealing with exactly such super-power in the past forms of our imagined mighty deities to which we ascribed manifold tears, fears and prayers. Thanks, Bill Gates, for the twin dose of climate reality and climate optimism. We needed that.


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