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Bill Gates on What a Plan to Address Climate Change Really Means

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Interrogating the planet's most important climate thinkers.

On September 23, the United Nations will open its Climate Action Summit here in New York, three days after the Global Climate Strike, led by Greta Thunberg, will sweep through thousands of cities worldwide. To mark the occasion, Intelligencer will be publishing “State of the World,” a series of in-depth interviews with climate leaders from Bill Gates to Naomi Klein and Rhiana Gunn-Wright to William Nordhaus interrogating just how they see the precarious climate future of the planet — and just how hopeful they think we should all be about avoiding catastrophic warming. (Unfortunately, very few are hopeful.)

Today, September 17, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released its annual “Goalkeepers” report — a data-heavy status update measuring global progress toward the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. (It always doubles as a report card on the work of the foundation.)

This year’s edition focuses on inequality and the ways that gender and geography remain obstacles to opportunity in much of the world — “We were born in a wealthy country to white, well-off parents who lived in thriving communities and were able to send us to excellent schools,” the report opens, before moving on to focus on primary health care and “digital inclusion” (the way that technology has helped the distribution of cooking gas in India, for instance).

But it also devotes a significant chapter to climate change, a growing focus for Gates and the foundation, and in particular climate adaptation — the challenge of how to actually live in a world transformed by global warming. As an investor, Gates has backed dozens of companies developing new tech to at least help slow down temperature rise — from next-generation nuclear to new battery technology and beyond. But the foundation has always directed its giving toward what it considers “market failures” and the plight of the world’s poor, and so Gates’s philanthropic work on climate change is less focused on stopping global warming than on dealing with it.

On August 5, in Seattle, I talked to him about balancing the prerogatives of adaptation and mitigation, the scale of the challenge of climate change and whether we have any realistic chance of avoiding catastrophic levels of warming, and just how punishingly unequal the impacts of climate change will be when they do arrive.

You and Melinda describe yourselves as “impatient optimists.” The impatient part is especially interesting to me because I come at some of these big questions from climate, and the timeline there really has changed my perspective about the broad trajectory of progress in the world. Has it changed yours?
If you asked Warren Buffett still what he worries about the most, he’ll talk about nuclear weapons.

In a way, that is rational.
Yeah, it’s a little scary, actually. The current generation is thinking about climate change appropriately, but we didn’t actually get rid of those nuclear weapons.

But putting aside climate change, the trajectory and nuclear weapons and big pandemics and bioterrorism, all of which are worthy of attention, the general trajectory of the world is very positive. Scientific understanding has given us new vaccines and new drugs and better seeds, cheaper ways to make fertilizer, digital ways that we can track: Is the government spending its money properly? Are people who go to the health clinic getting treated the way they want? So there’s a lot of things that have us on this very positive arc. In fact, the last 30 years, since 1990, we’ve made more progress on reducing child mortality than at any time in history.

But how about climate change?
Climate change is a super-important topic, and sadly the mitigation part, which is very, very important, has gotten 95 percent to the attention — though not enough that we can say we’re in good shape there. The greatest expert on energy is Václav Smil. Whenever you spend time with Václav, he’s like, “Oh, yeah? You’re going to do what in 20 years?”

I was just reading a piece of his earlier on that this morning.
His stuff is so good. You can’t get enough of him. He’s coming out with a new book …

Growth, yeah.
Super-good. It’s just a reminder that the modern economy is about energy intensity. This idea that we’ll take 100 million barrels a day and just not use them, that we’ll just say, “No, no. No, thank you” — it’s very hard.

If we are imagining a world in which we take some dramatic action and engineer some kind of meaningful solution to this challenge, what does that look like to you? How big a part of it is nuclear power? How big a part of it is carbon capture? How big a part of it is new cement? How do you see that big picture?
There’s a long answer to that. I would like to help educate people on what a plan really means. A plan involves looking at all the sources, electricity, transport, industry, buildings, and land use/agriculture and really saying, “Okay, what are the possible paths that get you to these dramatic reductions, and therefore what are the missing inventions?” Fortunately, there’s not any one path. If you don’t have nuclear and if you don’t have a storage miracle, it’s very, very hard, because basically what you have to do is have electricity be used for many, many, many things like all building heating and cooling that today, you use natural gas or coal for it directly.

So, first, you have to assume you can make electricity with zero emission. Then you assume you can make the electric sector almost three times bigger than it is today — these are mind-blowing investments. I want to help educate people because I have not seen anything that’s worthy of the word plan because a plan has to involve not just the U.S. doing something.

Of course, yeah.
You have to convince middle-income countries. I think of India as paradigmatic, because it’s big enough to count and it’s poor enough. They deserve to have air conditioning. I mean, they’re getting very high wet-bulb temperatures. Jesus Christ, by 2070, there could be just a massive number of people dropping dead in the streets.

So a plan that really addresses the global issue has to bring what I call the green premium for all of these various goods and services down dramatically, like over 90 percent.

What’s the green premium?
What would green cement cost today? What would green steel cost today? What would green beef cost today? It’s great that people care about the issue, but it’s a very complex issue. And, unfortunately once they hear about how hard it is to solve and how expensive it is to solve, I hope their resolve isn’t … When diesel prices got increased........

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