When I congratulate Bill Gates for reaching No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list with How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, his alarming yet weirdly upbeat take on our global environmental crisis, he notes that the book has held the post for three weeks now. “For a climate book, that’s good,” he says. Bill, that’s good for any book. But the success is not surprising: Few humans have the authority of Gates, who is a widely recognized expert not only in technology and business but on subjects as disparate as global health and energy, as a result of his work in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He was ready to publish his environmental tome a year ago, but he held off because he (and the rest of the world) was focusing on another big problem, Covid-19. We haven’t beat that yet, but the climate won’t wait. Apparently a lot of book buyers agree.
Gates’ book is part jeremiad and part cheerleading. He takes a systematic approach to the climate crisis, breaking it down by the different industries that generate the most emissions. (No cow fart is spared.) He frames the solution in terms of what he calls green premiums: the difference in cost between products and services that don’t spew greenhouse gas compared to the lower-cost CO2 spitters we’re currently hooked on. We learn surprising facts, such as that cement is worse than air-conditioning. And he’s careful to note the paradox that our massive energy consumption is not villainous in itself—cheap energy and even things such as deforestation have helped Earth’s poorest to lead better lives. Of course, that makes climate disaster harder to avoid.
Yet Gates thinks we can do it—through innovation. In his rendering, it will take dozens of advances in various fields, hopefully accelerated by government support, to lower or eliminate green premiums so we can get to his big, hairy, audacious goal of lowering our current 51 billion tons of greenhouse gas released every year to a very round number. Zero.
I spoke with Gates via (of course) Microsoft Teams—no jet fuel was consumed to make this conversation happen! The interview is edited for length and coherence.
You are really optimistic about how we can beat the climate disaster. But you spend a lot of your book talking about how hard it's going to be to eliminate the 51 billion tons of greenhouse gas by 2050. You include a long list of scientific breakthroughs we need to make before we can accomplish this. So where does your optimism come from?
You can accuse me of being an optimistic person in general. It's characteristic of someone who drops out of school thinking they can create a software company and hires a lot of people and then it actually works. And then at the foundation, all the work we've done with new vaccines and improving global health, that's also gone super well. That pushes you in the wow-what-can-I-do category. I agree that's a dangerous thing. I admit climate is not only different from those two things but a lot harder.
The thing that I most honestly worry about is the political will on this, particularly if we don't get young Republicans, as a generation, to view this as something that they are definitely behind on, and that their elders really messed up on. Unless we get that in an even more dramatic way than we have today, it'll be hard, because we're going to have Republican and Democratic administrations. You're asking these large industries—the utilities, steel, cement—to reinvest in infrastructure in a very dramatic way. Unless the policies are enduring policies, not just short-term things, there's no way they should do it.
Have you seen these young Republicans at CPAC? I don't think they're reading your book, Bill.
That's an interesting challenge. I should be more scientific about that. We have a partner who just funds Republican lobbying. Are the attitudes changing in those young people? Without that, we're just in super deep trouble, because it's the innovation of the United States that's going to drive a lot of this.
In the book you hold off addressing climate denial until the last two pages of the last chapter. Why did you essentially not deal with it in the book?
I'm in some ways more targeted at people who think it's easy to solve the problem than people who don't think it's a problem. So you have four camps: (1) There's no problem here. (2)You have a problem, but it's easy. (3) It's absolutely impossible, so just party on. And (4) then you have me, who says: (a) it's important, (b) it's very, very hard, and (c) it's not so hard that we don't have a chance of succeeding. There are things like the electric car where, in a 15-year time frame as the upfront cost goes down, as the charging stations get out, as the range goes up, as the charge time gets down to 15 minutes, we'll have a green premium of zero. That means that GM can say no more gasoline cars and not expect customers to revolt. And that's pretty amazing, given that it's only 2 percent of the sales volume today. Passenger cars will essentially be a solved problem.
Don't you think a giant political investment in the 2016 election that might have resulted in a different outcome would have helped the climate more than any of the things in your book?
No. Go look at my 2010 climate talk. I say I would rather have energy innovation than the right to pick every president for the rest of my life. Now, I have to admit, I didn't anticipate that the electorate would pick Trump. So it's made me think twice. That's not for climate reasons. Competence really matters. Look, this country needs changes of party. You can't have just Democrats in charge. It's not going to happen. And it's not good for the country. The Democrats do not think resources are finite. Resources are finite. I'm enough of a centrist to look at the Green New Deal and say, what world do you people live in that you're going to give everyone a job, and you stuck that in a climate bill? You must not be serious about climate. You must be singing the theme song of the Internationale and reading Marx. Do you want that party to be in charge forever? No, not me.
I'd assume you're more simpatico with the guy in the White House now. To me, the part of your book where you outline a course of action sounds like you're presenting a résumé to be our climate czar. How about it?
The executive branch has a limit to what it can do. So I'm spending a lot of time with members of Congress. These are likely to be eight very good years for climate progress. And sadly, we have to do a lot of it through reconciliation. There's various policy things that fit that lens and some that don't. I hope the R&D spending can fit that lens. You know, there was actually quite a bit of climate stuff in the December bill that got passed. There was so much in it that the fact that there was this green energy stuff in there got almost no visibility. Yes, this is a political problem, but the solution is not just to have Democrats in charge. Ideally, it promotes the history of the country—the Republican Party listens to the business community. And now we have enough young people who care about this thing that even the oil companies are saying, "OK, we're going to go along with this." I really think if the younger generation cares, then we're OK. And if not, then we'll miss it. Will we miss by 10 years, 20 years? It's all a matter of how many categories those premiums stay super high in.
Still, one suggestion you make in your book is for people worried about climate to serve in government. What about you, since so many of your suggestions really depend on governments to create a supply of climate innovations and spur the demand for them at premium prices.
Absolutely. But I'm only expert in a limited number of things. It's weird that climate change got added to that list because my views on global health and education used up whatever government work that I like to do. But in terms of the future of all our work in developing countries, this one really kind of trumps the health improvement that we've made, and things like better seeds to farmers. And it's complex enough that you kind of have to have a systems thinker to say, OK, what are the right metrics and how do you accelerate the innovation, which normally you would just let proceed at its own pace without any deadline, like we have here.
Some people charge that the opposition to addressing the problem comes not from ignorance but lobbying and misinformation from the fossil fuel industries. In other words, capitalism itself is the problem. I don't know if you saw this article about your book in the London Review of Books, but let me read you the conclusion: "The system that allowed Gates to amass his immense wealth is also the system that has led to and has so far proved incapable of meeting the challenges presented by the climate crisis.”
The human condition today is better than 20 years ago, 40 years ago, 200 years ago. Capitalism should get some credit for that. I'd rather be a woman today, I'd rather be a gay person today, I'd rather get cancer today. Try and run this pandemic 10 years ago, before the internet and before we knew how to make modern new vaccines. If people think that 100 years ago is better than today, then they can say what a huge error we made with this capitalism thing.
It's interesting that the people who you would think would be avid supporters of dealing with the climate crisis are now really excited about cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. Which climate-wise seems to be a step backward, because it's such a huge energy consumer.
My criticisms of Bitcoin are not really centered on its ridiculous use of electricity. It's more centered on my belief in attributed reversible duplicable local currency digital exchange, like what the foundation has been funding in India, Kenya, and many other places. I believe in digital currency for low transaction costs, and we've done more to lower the cost of remittances than anyone. In Kenya today, drive around, you'll see the signs everywhere. Bitcoin hasn’t done that, because you can't cash it out. These Bitcoin guys have done nothing—maybe on kidnapping fees or some drug transaction costs.
I want to ask you about geoengineering, which you mention briefly in the book. You say you've been funding some studies about this. You say this approach, which messes with the climate itself, is a break-the-glass measure taken when it’s too late to otherwise stop catastrophic consequences. When would that moment come, and what would we do?
Right now the big debate is, should they be allowed to even do tiny little experiments or shouldn't we even go near it. It’s very controversial. I remember when The Inconvenient Truth came out, and I said after the screening, “Gore, hey, what about geoengineering?” He just went like this [Gates makes the sign of a cross that wards off vampires], meaning we shouldn't even talk about it. I didn't want in the book to push it, but I thought if I didn't even mention it, that would also be strange, like I'm trying to hide it like it's some secret plan. It's a little bit tricky because we're not very good at modeling weather, and it'll be a huge political decision. It won't be a decision made by me. If we're responsible and making progress on climate change the way we should, we won't ever be tempted to use it.
Are you sure it won't be a decision made by you?
I'm quite sure it won't be made by me. I'm not going to push this thing. I'm pushing the more rational, Hey, just change the way you make steel. Let's get cheap, green hydrogen. I've done a few million in geoengineering, and overall I've done, like, $2 billion. I lose more money on battery companies times one hundred than I put into geoengineering. I funded the open source green energy model. I funded nuclear fusion. At the Paris climate event, there was only one person there pushing the R&D agenda for the political leaders. It’s weird to me how early this whole climate field is in developing an understanding of what needs to be done.
Seems to me that the understanding is early enough, but the planet is telling us the action is late.
It's about 20 years late in a certain sense. I only saw it through the lens of what I was seeing in Africa, in terms of how difficult the farming was getting there and sort of thinking, do we really have to deal with this complex constraint of climate change? I was very lucky that people brought me up to speed.
At some point in the book you note that you consume an “absurd” amount of energy yourself. I assume that you traveled a lot less this year. Considering your climate activism, will that continue even after the pandemic ends?
Sure. I hope my international travel in the future is about half of what it was in the past. For example, now African leaders all have a block on their calendar called “take video calls.” For a lot of these leaders whom I used to meet, instead of flying there once every two years and sitting and waiting and having an hour-long meeting, I can do a 20-minute meeting with simultaneous translation and get through everything we need. So my efficiency of working with African leaders in terms of their time and my time was like 10 times better this year than ever. I'm not going back to that, and I think there's a lot of things like that.
Our cutting back on things like travel shows we're scared for our lives. We change our behavior. You should be optimistic about that.
But that is not how you get to zero, having rich countries do a bit less of something. The acid test is whether India will use green approaches in 2050. They are going to use more electricity, and they're going to install air-conditioning, and they're going to provide basic shelter, and when we call them up in 2050 and say, Use the green approach with current technology, they would say, Hey, send us those trillions of dollars because you're rich—you caused this problem, and we need to provide the very basic needs to our people. So, no, we're not going to get out of it that way. If all the rich countries went to zero, it wouldn't matter. The idea of nationally determined contributions doesn't take you to zero.
Here’s a Covid question. The last time we talked, you said you were funding manufacturing facilities for the vaccines even before they were approved, so we'd have enough when they got the green light. But we didn't seem to have enough. What happened?
Well, nobody said that they knew how to make 14 billion vaccines overnight. The reason that the serum factory that makes AstraZeneca makes more than any factory in the world is because of the funding that we provided. We are falling way short on vaccine equity. Pfizer and Moderna, which are not that scalable and fairly expensive, are great solutions for rich countries. But it's a new process that can't be done any time soon in a developing country. We've done more in the mRNA space than any single organization. But it wasn't ready. There wasn't a single approved vaccine using this technology. If the pandemic had come five years later, mRNA would have been a stable platform in terms of cost, duration, manufacturing capacity. But hey, I spent $2 billion, and I know if I hadn’t spent it, the inequity would be even worse.
When do you think that we'll return to attending conferences and seeing movies?
The fall will feel way more normal. I'd be stunned if there's any meaningful number of schools that aren't in session. We still have to get the acceptance rate of the vaccine up in low-income communities, people of color. The uptake is still substandard. And we have to put the smartest people on it to show that they’re taking the vaccine and it’s working. I think the administration is doing that. But even if we can get that coverage level up, we will not have a full rebound. In the rest of the world it will be almost till the end of 2022 before you're going to get that type of coverage. It used to be that the vaccines took 20 years to get from the rich world to the developing world. So it is better, but not still not good enough.
One final question: In your book you said you were reading things by David Foster Wallace in a runup to taking on Infinite Jest. Did you ever get to it?
Not yet. No way. I'm going to read every word that David Foster Wallace wrote, every single word, every article, every book, before I read page one. Because I have a rule. If I start a book, I finish it. Infinite Jest could take me a year! Just look at the footnotes.
Why do you want to read Wallace to begin with?
I think he's a genius. I love his writing style. Of course, it's kind of a sad story, but he has a certain genius in terms of how he does things. Some of his writing is so entertaining, but he also makes things so complicated. So I just have to do it.
Do you think you would have gotten along with him?
The most I know about him is that movie called The End of the Tour. I think he would have been a very difficult person to get along with. He wasn't very sociable, but he was a genius. He liked to play tennis, and he was semi-decent like I am. I could have played tennis with the guy.