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.
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: