How Bill Gates Would Solve the Climate Crisis

By Debbie Van Der Hyde of

It takes a lot — perhaps a minor miracle — to put more than a thousand people in a celebratory mood at 7:30 a.m. And apparently, a public discussion with Bill Gates about climate change and its solutions is just such an occasion.

This week, the former Microsoft chief and current philanthropist and head of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation served as the main attraction at a fundraiser in Seattle put on by Climate Solutions, a regional non-profit organization with operations in Washington, Oregon and Montana.

During the breakfast event, Climate Solutions promoted its mission of clean energy solutions, in part through the premiere of its Solutions Stories video series, and in part through presentations from other regional environmental and political leaders, including Dean Allen, CEO of architecture and construction firm McKinstry; Climate Solutions’ policy director, K.C. Golden; Washington state governor Christine Gregoire and Representative Jim McDermott were also in attendance.

But the real reason the crowds had thronged, and Climate Solutions had gathered dozens of volunteers wearing bright green hard hats as greeters and coordinators to welcome attendees, was to hear Bill Gates speak on climate change challenges and solutions, and how to, as Golden put it, “pioneer a sustainable path to prosperity that works for us for the long run and for the billions of people around world” who are less privileged.

Breakfast with Bill

Gates was interviewed by Climate Solutions’ board co-president Jabe Blumenthal, who asked Gates about his interest in energy, climate change and how these topics relate to the work being done by the Gates Foundation. Excerpts of Gates’ answers to Blumenthal’s questions follow:

Q: How and why did you get involved in climate change?

Gates: I think it’s important to think about energy and how critical it is in so many ways. Why has our civilization gotten so advanced in the last few hundred years? A lot of it is about breakthroughs in energy and intensification of energy use. If you think about poor people and improving their lives … getting around, getting fertilizer, getting lighting at night … so many of the things that count for them are related to energy.

As I learned about energy, I began to understand that we’ve got this constraint. We have to do it in a way that’s not emitting CO2. We need multiple breakthroughs — a portfolio of solutions–that deal with the environment and getting the costs down. In terms of overall planetary energy use, we have to have something that works for everyone. I’ve enjoyed learning about it and helping people understand how important this is.

Q: Can you talk about what you’ve done in the past couple of years to educate yourself about this area?

Gates: The number of great books in this area is phenomenal, including Creating the Twentieth Century by Vaclav Smil and Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air by David MacKay. I’m also very lucky that some of the top people on climate and energy are willing to come and talk with me.

The last session we had was on climate and agriculture. The Gates Foundation does a lot with agriculture since 70 percent of poor people have small farms. Making them more productive is important. Weather and climate are already problems and are going to get worse, as crops won’t be as productive. Understanding how that works and what can we do to mitigate it is a fascinating topic.

People who understand the political situation came out and talked to me, too. We put a group together to make the case for more basic energy R&D. This is something only the government is going to do. Once you get further downstream, there are lots of opportunities for investment. I spent yesterday with a venture capitalist talking about 15 different energy companies he’s put together. That part makes me optimistic … even though we seem to have political roadblocks around issues like carbon pricing. The innovation piece is so important. I think the government should more than double what it’s spending on that piece.The group didn’t get it done yet but we’re going to keep trying.

Q: The group you are referring to is the American Energy Innovation Council with business leaders from GE, Xerox, Martin Marietta and more, right? Can you talk about some of the recommendations you made and the reception of those?

Gates: It’s a fun group. We have a clear consensus about what should be done. I think in a normal fiscal environment, we probably would have been successful. The amount you have to tax energy in order to fund the R&D piece is pretty modest — say one-half percent. It came at a time when the idea of a tax associated with climate was going to have a tough climb. President Obama did see us, though, and he said some nice things.

I still think when you care about the future, many issues come together on this one. Why do we have a security problem? What could hurt our economy in a disastrous way? Cutting off the availability of oil would be very bad. A few good things have been done … but we have to keep pressure up on this, including being creative about what funding sources would look like. I’m kind of stunned that we can’t get a more bipartisan view on the R&D piece because it is about jobs and innovation. The world counts on America to do this well.

Q: Last year, you gave a talk at TED, saying if we’re going to get to 80 percent reduction in CO2, we have to get emissions of energy production to zero. To do it, you said we really need energy breakthroughs — or miracles.

For rich countries, we have to do more; we have to take it to zero. There are different approaches — carbon sequestration, natural gas, nuclear, renewable, solar — none of which is clear will be economic so we need to pursue them all. Over the next few decades, we have to invent and pilot. Then we have to deploy in unbelievably quick ways these new sources. Usually it takes 60 years from when you get new energy sources to when they are widely used. We’re talking about moving faster to change than we have in the past.

Q: You have been criticized for being not optimistic about current low-carbon technologies. What is your reaction? What is different between the computer industry and the energy industry?

Gates: The difference is the scale of capital investment and amount of time that it has to be useful. When you build a natural gas or nuclear plant, it has to have a 40-year life to make sense. The decisions being made now are based on some prediction of government policy in the future. It’s more risky in terms of regulatory things so there is a tendency to underinvest.

For software and computers, the life cycle is two to three years. Companies understand who wants to buy and it’s not subject to regulatory complexity.

The energy sector is going to be underinvested. R&D won’t be done as well unless the government comes in and encourages people with money, permits certain kinds of things and ensures economic incentives will stay in place for the full time period.

Q: I think everybody in the room knows you’ve got an interest in nuclear technology and have made an investment in TerraPower [A nuclear reactor design company]. But you’ve made investments in other areas, too. What do you want to say about TerraPower and other solutions?

Gates: My goal is to get a solution that is cheap energy and that emits no CO2. There are many paths that we could go down. Anyone who thinks any of these paths is easy is overlooking the difficulties. It is not easy to get wind up to 30 percent and have it be economic. It’s not easy to get solar thermal, solar electric, biothermals up to big numbers. Nuclear has particular difficulties in terms of the cost of building plants and creating systems so people can see that nuclear is safe and can feel good about it. Given this uncertainty, I think we have to go full speed ahead on every one of them.

Regarding Terrapower, on paper what we have is so cool. The difference to making it an actual plant is immensely difficult. So that is a very high risk company. But it employs brilliant people based here in Seattle, working with universities around the U.S. It’s one of a thousand companies we need to get behind to maximize our chances so that 15 years from now we will have multiple technologies that will work.

Q: Is the Gates Foundation going to get involved in climate change?

Gates: I’m very involved in energy and climate in terms of investments, learning sessions, reading and political activities. The energy market is gigantic — trillions of dollars. I think the capitalistic format is where energy innovation is going to take place, and I want to facilitate that as best I can.

If you think about the needs of the poorest — the types of biofuel they might be able to do uniquely on small farms in Africa and Asia — that draws in the Foundation. We are looking at things that are ignored, that there is no market for and relate to the poorest. Some of our agriculture work touches on energy. Getting energy for healthcare clinics in remote parts of Africa is another. We need innovative solutions for those things.

By and large, most of the money I put into energy will be done on the private side. Ideally some of those things will be successful and will generate profits that will go into the Foundation to do more things on global health.

Q: You ended last year’s TED talk with the statement: If I have one wish for the next 50 years, it would be energy at half the cost of today’s energy with zero carbon emissions. Do you feel as strongly about that today?

Gates: Absolutely. If you look at the history of mankind — why is it in the last 300 years that we’ve doubled life span, reduced childhood death by a factor of 10, raised literacy from under one percent to over 80 percent? Innovation is so core to how we’ve gotten as far as we’ve come. It’s exciting that we have the potential to solve these problems. The amount of sun that hits the earth is gigantic so it’s possible to use that as a source that will solve this. The amount of energy in uranium molecules is one million times per reaction than oxidizing carbon.

We have to get organized to do high-risk things in this area. If can get energy improved, it is deeply empowering. Meeting with scientists working on this stuff makes me feel optimistic. Then I look at the political elements that should be in place — for example, pricing carbon, R&D. When I despair why we’re not moving forward, I have to think we are not being creative enough.

Photo CC-licensed by OnInnovation.