Bill Gates is a relative newcomer to the fight against global warming, but he's already shifting the debate over climate change. In recent years, America's wealthiest man has begun to tackle energy issues in a major way, investing millions in everything from high-capacity batteries to machines that can scrub carbon dioxide out of the air. With a personal fortune of $50 billion, Gates has the resources to give his favorite solutions a major boost. But it's his status as America's most successful entrepreneur that gives his views the most clout: "His voice carries enormous credibility about how technology can be used to solve global warming," says Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund.
When it comes to climate and energy, Gates is a radical consumerist. In his view, energy consumption is good — it just needs to be clean energy. As he sees it, the biggest challenge is not persuading Americans to buy more efficient refrigerators or trade in their SUVs for hybrids; it's figuring out how to raise the standard of living in the developing world without wrecking the climate. Achieving that, he argues, will require an "energy miracle" — a technological breakthrough that creates an inexhaustible supply of carbon-free energy. Although he doesn't know what form that miracle will take, he knows we need to think big. "We don't really grasp the scale of the problem we're facing," Gates tells me in his office overlooking Lake Washington in Seattle. "The right goal is not to cut our carbon emissions in half. The right goal is zero."
Since leaving Microsoft, you're best known for your work combating poverty and disease in the developing world. Why add climate change and energy issues to the list?
Well, energy would be superinteresting and important even if it wasn't for the terrible climate problem. The thing that really changed in civilization — only about 250 years ago — was an intense use of energy. It changed everything: transportation and food and appliances and communication. Today, we're very dependent on cheap energy. We just take it for granted — all the things you have in the house, the way industry works. I'm interested in making sure the poorest countries don't get left behind, so figuring out how they can get cheap energy is very, very important. Whether it's fertilizing crops or building housing, a lot of it comes down to energy.
So we need more energy for the poor and less for the rich?
It's the poorer people in tropical zones who will get really hit by climate change — as well as some ecosystems, which nobody wants to see disappear. This is a global thing, and it's really hard for people to get their minds around the amount of reduction required. Every year we're increasing the amount of CO2 we put out, and yet we're talking about an 80 percent reduction. To make that happen, the rich world is going to have to be way down — way down — in energy use.
You say we need an "energy miracle" to halt climate change. What do you mean?
To have the kind of reliable energy we expect, and to have it be cheaper and zero carbon, we need to pursue every available path to achieve a really big breakthrough. I certainly don't want the government to only pick a few paths, because our probability of success is much higher if we're pursuing many, many paths. Think about all the people who are getting up every day and working on solutions that may seem kind of delusional even though the odds against them are higher than they realize. The world needs all these people trying things out and believing in them. In IT, there were tons of dead ends — but there was enough of a success rate to have an unbelievable impact.
Handicap it for me: Which technological paths look the most promising to you?
You can certainly limit things by their potential scale. There are a few places on the planet that can produce tidal energy, for example, but that alone won't ever be gigantic. Geothermal, because of the formations and the amount of heat that comes through, is also going to be pretty minor. So what you're left with is: Can you make fossil fuels carbon-free? That's important to pursue but very hard to achieve.
How about developing technology to capture and store carbon from coal plants?
America's Power [a coal-industry PR group] has these ads recently where they're talking about "clean coal." But there are a number of steps required to do that, and they aren't really being done. For instance: The government has got to take responsibility for the long-term waste. They messed up on nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, and the long-term waste from clean coal would be a billion times larger. The issue of "where to put the waste" is the hardest because of the consensus that's required.
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