‘RS Interview: Special Edition’ With Bill Gates
The title of Bill Gates’ new book – How to Avoid a Climate Disaster — is very Bill Gates-ian. Above everything else, Gates is an engineer, a man who sees a problem and immediately wonders how to fix it. Gates’ world is rational, logical, and, in a deep but not simple way, optimistic. After all, if a problem is fixable, you just have to find the best tools for the job and get it done.
In his new book, Gates takes on the mother of all problems: the climate crisis. He looks at it not as a moral or political issue (although he is not naïve about either) but as an experienced mechanic might examine a car sputtering on the side of the road, or as a doctor might look at a sick patient. Gates clearly sets out what the goal should be – zero CO2 pollution by 2050, which is widely recognized as the target for a habitable planet – and then analyzes how to get there. Chapters have titles like “How We Plug In,” “How We Grow Things,” and “How We Keep Cool and Stay Warm.” In each, he examines the strength and weaknesses of various solutions and then coolly renders his judgement about the best way forward. Mixed in are anecdotes about his experiences in the developing world, where much of Gates’ philanthropic work has long been focused. His observations about the motives for human behavior can be refreshingly blunt, even if you disagree. About the causes of deforestation, for example, he says “People cut down trees not because people are evil; they do it when the incentives to cut down trees are stronger than the incentives to leave them alone.” Gates is often criticized for being too dependent on technological solutions for what is, at root, a very human problem. But that’s a little like calling out a dog for not meowing like a cat. This is the guy who brought us the personal computer revolution, after all.
In this interview, Gates and I touched on a number of things, from the trouble with President Biden’s promise to build a net zero energy grid by 2035, to the Covid conspiracy theorists who believe he is using vaccines to inject microchips into people’s bodies, to the risks of geoengineering to cool the planet. I’ve talked with Gates a number of times over the years, and in this interview, he was surprisingly animate and unguarded. If nothing else, you can see that debating big ideas really lights the guy up.
One note: Gates talks about a number of people by their first name in this interview, which can be a little confusing. So here’s a cheat sheet: “Lowell” is Lowell Wood, a former Pentagon physicist who sometimes advises Gates (I tried to capture Wood’s outlandish character in this 2011 Rolling Stone story). “Nathan” is Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft and noted cookbook author; “Smil” is Vaclav Smil, a Canadian scientist and author of Energy and Civilization, who has long been a friend and advisor to Gates.
Congratulations on the book. I know, having published a few books myself, it’s a strange feeling, kind of tossing a book out into the world after you labor on it on your own for a long time. What’s that experience been like for you, just in the sense of, you know, the reception that the book has got? What surprised you most about it?
Well, climate is a very complex topic, and even people who are involved with the issue may not understand all the aspects of it. You know, sometimes I’d be thinking, OK, how’s Lowell [Wood] going to think or Nathan [Myhrvold] when they read this? And so I thought, “Oh no, I’m oversimplifying things.” Then I’m thinking, “OK, what’s Warren Buffett going to think when he reads this?” And he’s really my target audience, somebody who’s never read books about climate but quite intelligent and a fair bit of curiosity about, you know, these various improvements. You know, how far do they take you and what is the bad case and the good case? So I was trying to air on the simple side. Like Lowell said, you can’t say you have to get to zero because then there’ll be ocean absorption. And you need to explain about, you know, that the oceans take a long time to equilibrate with the atmosphere. And I’m like, I don’t think I’m going to put that in here.
But anyway, it was a fun process. I finished the book in 2019 and it was going to come out last year, but then as the pandemic hit, our foundation is pretty central, we understand vaccine factories and production better than any single organization because all these Indian factories basically have been financed into existence by us. [So] we decided to skip [publishing] that year. And fortunately, COP-26 also got delayed. So it actually feels pretty timely in a way, because we have, you know, Biden elected with this as a priority. The European Union has this as is a priority. So it feels timely. People are being super nice about the book. Other than the one review, they’ve all been very positive.
Do you mean The New York Times review?
Yeah. [Bill] McKibben.
What was your response to that review, which basically I think was a little bit critical for your sort of emphasis on technological change rather than political change?
It’s hard to know what it was, because if you read the book, you know that just talking about electricity, if you get to chapter three, you know that just talking about electricity isn’t going to solve the problem. And just talking about U.S. electricity really, really, really isn’t going to solve the problem. And McKibben is stuck in this time warp where it’s just about a few evil utility executives or people who won’t admit, you know, that solar is cheap and he’s just spreading the good news. You know, now we have this 2035 zero-emission electric-grid goal, which, to say that’s high-reach is to be kind. We’re doing this really amazing open source model. I’ve always funded it, but it started out under Nathan and now we’ve moved it over under our breakthrough energy thing. And we’ve got a really great team. So the idea is to have everybody, whether it’s FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] or ERCOT [Electric Reliability Council of Texas] or the utilities take our model and put in how much nuclear, what kind of storage, what kind of transmission. And show how many Americans freeze to death when you’ve got a cold front in the Midwest.
I’m talking to you from Texas where I just lived through that [laughs]. So you’re talking about the 2035 goal of the Biden administration, for net-zero electricity. You think that’s unachievable?
In general, when politicians talk to you about grid reliability, you’d like to say to them, “OK, where’s the engineer who’s got the model behind this statement?” And these models they use are so terrible and they’re proprietary and they don’t share information. I mean, it’s like nobody is serious about this thing. Doing this open source model for North American grid reliability, you can get academics and all the key people involved. And utility companies are serious companies. They really employ real engineers. None of them have been engaged in this discussion of the 2035 grid. So I want to use the model, I want to be positive, I want to come up with that solution. The world would be super impressed. Now, the U.S. is more blessed than most geographies. We’ve got a wide country, so you can’t get a cold front over the whole country. We’ve got good solar and, you know, Canada’s got some hydro. We can’t even build the interconnect between Canada and the U.S. right now, which is really insane because that’s reliability, cost-saving, and green. It’s got all three benefits, but it gets blocked because, of course, the right away you need the end condition of everyone along the linear path for it to work. And so that goal, you won’t find an engineer who can back that goal. Otherwise, it’s very well organized.
Yeah, so let’s take a step back for people who haven’t read the book and explain to them what the central argument is you’re making here briefly.
If you don’t believe in climate change, this book is not the one that’s going to convince you. It is a book for somebody who thinks it’s a fairly important problem and wants to get a sense of, “OK, where are these sources of emissions and how hard is it to get rid of these emissions?” And remind people that we need to do adaptation, although that’s only one chapter. But the diversity of the sources of emissions and the potential for innovation to bring the total green premium down, that’s what this book is about. To me, the paradigmatic phone call is in 2050 when you call India and you say, “Hey, are you willing to use the green stuff?” And they say, “Hey, are you willing to send us trillions of dollars? We’re building basic shelter here. It turns out it’s warmer. We need air conditioning. We need lights at night. Our seeds are not growing as well as they used to.” And could you do it on a brute force basis? And the answer is no way, unless you get about a 95 percent reduction, which would be about 250 billion a year.
The whole climate endeavor is not focused on R&D. And it’s used short term metrics. Well, if you use short term metrics of reduction, of course you go after the easy stuff. And passenger cars and some portion of electricity, in fact, a lot modular reliability, which we were just discussing, those are the lowest green premiums. And so, of course, you’re going after the low green premiums. And when those countries go into the room, say, “Hey, I’m Norway, I’ll do 32 percent [emissions reductions]. “Hey, France, why don’t you do 33?” Nobody’s talking about making steel some different way. The way we make steel, we make it the same way everywhere in the world. Nobody’s going to do high green premium stuff. Even the Norwegian carbon tax doesn’t reach that. The carbon tax people, for high green premium things, all the carbon taxes shift you to stay away from the high green premium things. It doesn’t say work on the high green premium things. And zero [CO2 emissions goal] is special. And people should know that zero is special. Zero is not about reducing the number of burgers people eat or putting in mass transit for 20 percent less passenger miles. And, you know, so the U.S.’s responsibility to the world is not to brute force get rid of its 15 percent [of CO2 emissions]. That’s of no value at all if we brute force 15 percent. The only value is to take our innovation power, which is the majority of the world, and bring green premiums down by 95 percent. That’s what the U.S. has to do. All the other stuff is just so much confusion.
Just to be clear, you’re using this term green premiums a lot, which I think maybe a lot of people don’t understand what that means. But that’s the price differential between clean energy systems and dirty energy systems, right?
Exactly, for every emitting activity, you look at the current cost of the activity and then you look at what it would cost to complete the activity with net-zero emissions. And so I use a $100 per ton direct air capture price [an expensive, not-yet-scalable way to draw carbon out of the atmosphere]. If there’s no other more efficient way, I do it that way. And so, you know, for the 51 billion tons of yearly emissions, that’s 5 trillion a year, at $100 a ton, of green premium. And fortunately, in the cases like electric cars, the scale up of the market and the incentives as you improve the cost of the batteries in the range and you get more charging points and you get quick charging, an [electric] car will not in the next 10 to 15 years, even without subsidies, be in any sense inferior to a gasoline car.
And so that’s a case where you get the green premium to zero. And when you get green premiums to zero, then politicians are allowed to get up and say, “Hey, I’m going to ban all gasoline cars in 2035” and nobody pelts them with tomatoes. And so, hey, we have a category — now that assumes the electric grid is still reliable, still cheap and 100 percent clean. But oh well. Piggybacking electricity is the name of the game here because it’s the only clean energy that we know how to move around reasonably. I mean, hydrogen is this whole area, now people are finally talking about it, but electricity will be the key. But, you know, I don’t think many people understand, like when you would say to a Biden person who says the 2035 zero [goal], what size electric grid are they talking about? How much natural gas and gasoline? Our industrial process energy load has been taken over by that electric grid.
Well it’s interesting because one of the kind of pivot points among climate activists and people who are thinking about our climate future is this 2030 goal versus a 2050 goal. I was talking to a climate scientist the other day who talked about what he calls the sort of “empty radicalism” of 2050 goals and that it allows people to promise we’re going to go to zero emissions by 2030 and make a lot of kind of promises that may or may not turn out to be true because they’re so far in the distance, and that what we really need are emissions cuts now. We need to get to half of our emissions by 2030. And what really matters is what we do in the near term. And you have a completely opposite view of this.
I don’t get it, what’s he saying about steel? What’s he saying about cement? I mean, look what is he going to do by 2030? OK, is he funding? I fund more direct director capture companies than anyone. I fund more battery companies than anyone. Where’s his open source model of the grid and the grid being reliable? What is he doing? This whole field, I don’t get it.
To focus on the near term.
Near-term goals are part of the thing. I mean, we should get those electric cars, getting it from two percent [of the market] up, that’s a lot of work to do that. And the tax incentive helps do that and figuring out the economics of the charging points. We should proceed with the low green premium categories to go for a large scale deployment. So you have solar, wind and electric cars that are ready for prime time. And getting those going full-bore is so necessary. I mean, say your grid is going to be 80 percent solar and wind, you’re going to have to build more per year, three times more per year than you did in your peak year, every year between now and 2035. And that’s not even counting transmission. So yes, I believe in those things going full speed.
Then you have things that are medium mature: electric heat pumps, offshore wind, artificial meat. There you need different types of tax credit things to get them from where they’re very niche and medium green premium today into the scale level so they move into that last category. And then you have things that are early stage, like direct air capture, steel, cement, you know, aviation fuel, hydrogen powered planes. And those things are so early that basic R&D and pretty modest procurement guarantees are needed. So you need to look at the maturity level, and the green premium is the perfect tool to do that with. The metric that tells you if you’re going to get to 2050 is the green premium. That’s when you call India on 2050 and you say, “Sir, will you fly airplanes green? Will you make your buildings green? Will you turn your lights on green?” And if they say no, you failed.
So just to talk about a couple of other things, one thing that I think a lot of Americans are going to be not thrilled to hear is you predict that the hamburgers as we know them will go the way of internal combustion engines, that there’s an inevitable kind of move toward 100 percent sort of synthetic meats? Is that right?
Well, you know, I funded Impossible [Burger]. I funded Beyond. Breakthrough Energy has a bunch of new ones, including Nature’s Fynd, which is super interesting because they use fungi to actually do the protein production, and it looks like it’s very, very efficient. You know, every industry is subject to competition. So put aside climate change. If somebody can make ground beef that tastes as good for a lower price, you know, is that un-American? Do you really have to kill a cow? I mean, I don’t know. Some people find it fun. Some people find that unattractive.
It’s great that the cow-based-approach people are looking at ways of reducing emissions by changing the diet or capturing the methane. And so you should never count out the dominant means of production. And the agricultural sector in terms of biofuels are able to be competitive. You know, then your demand and the culture sector, you’re adding, you know, sort of like you did with ethanol, although that turned out not to save as much greenhouse gas as some people originally thought that it would. You know, you’re adding into their role in this. You know, I eat normal beef. I mix in the other beef. Will there potentially be competition in ground beef and will that somewhat be preferred because of climate-related reasons? Other people can look at the dynamics in the market in terms of the cost structures. They have an R&D pathway where they truly fool you and you can’t tell the difference. And you can be skeptical. Will they achieve that? There are some of these products, like the Nature’s Fynd ones that come later this year where I really could not tell. In fact, I actually thought it was better. But I’m not, you know, Nathan Myhrvold. I don’t write cookbooks and do taste tests for high end companies.
[Laughs] So no Bill Gates cookbook coming out soon?
No, no. Nathan can own the market on the science-based cookbook category.
So you’ve obviously been working on disease and public health for a very long time with your malaria projects and everything else that you’ve done in Africa. I was a little surprised in your book that you didn’t talk a lot about how climate change is going to impact disease changes and disease vectors throughout the world. And I think there’s been a number of studies saying it’s going to change malaria patterns in Africa and other kinds of diseases that are carried by vectors that are associated with temperature changes. How do you think in the big picture about how climate is going to impact diseases?
Well, we have to be a little careful when we motivate people to care about climate to stick to things that are largely true. Even though it’s such an important cause, you might think, you know, we’ll take a little license here. So when you have a climate conference and you bring in, say, a kid who’s been in a hurricane and you’re like, “Oh, my God, a hurricane, we have to stop these hurricanes. And if we just do the right thing for climate, there’ll never be a hurricane again.” That’s pushing the envelope, I would say.
Yes, climate causes more intense hurricanes, we believe today. But there are some things that, you know, as the earth dries, you get less mosquitoes. Now what you do get [with] higher temperature, you do get the cities in Africa that were placed high up, because the mosquitoes couldn’t get there, to not have malaria. And so the patterns of where the insect disease stuff will be, they’ll be in new areas. They may even bite a few rich people, like Lyme disease. And so, yes, there will be some shift in where those things are. Overall because of huge deforestation caused by climate change, the number of mosquitoes in the world will be less. Now, malaria happens to be a problem that I think we should solve using tools that — letting malaria continue and saying, “Oh, my God, it’ll be worse because of climate change.” That’s not my strategy. My strategy is let’s get rid of malaria. Believe me, the plan for getting rid of malaria is a lot clearer— who has to do what and how it happens, including how it gets financed — than any source of climate emissions. Humanity owes it to itself to get rid of malaria. Malaria, it’s not just the deaths. Malaria is such a mind blowing burden on the health of any people in malaria’s regions.
So one of the things to go on with disease and this Covid moment that we’re in, I have to ask you about is what it’s been like for you to be at the center of all these sort of conspiracy theories. The other night, Tucker Carlson said that Bill Gates has control of your body. And there’s people out there saying that you’re injecting microchips, you know, and controlling people’s lives. You’ve become the kind of target of the QAnon wackiness. What’s this been like for you?
You know, it’s a tiny bit scary in terms of does it ever motivate, you know, some crazy physical attack. The notion that I care about people’s locations. Why would I want to microchip people? I don’t, I don’t get it. So, you know, at first you just have to laugh. But then, you know, as it affects people’s willingness to take vaccines or wear masks or just directs them in the wrong direction in terms of how we solve these problems, that it’s this evil person behind the curtain, and if we just got rid of them the problem would go away. You know, that’s a misdirection. And the scale of it during the pandemic, the only explanation I could have is that, yes, there’s people who are under a lot of stress. You know, it’s a horrific thing. And they’re looking for a simple explanation. You know, it’s been primarily myself and Dr. [Anthony] Fauci that, you know, our motive for why we’re trying to get a vaccine and what the vaccine does, that’s come under a lot of attack.
And that’s kind of sad because the vaccine story, the Gavi cheap vaccines for diarrhea and pneumonia, and the record reduction in childhood deaths, it’s an incredibly positive story. We’ve gone from 10 million deaths a year to five million deaths a year because of the vaccine work. The vaccine story is so positive and so exciting. You know, why isn’t that more interesting to click on than the sort of Dr. Evil version of the story?
And learning about what that is and, you know, should there be some things that social networks just don’t allow, like Holocaust denial? But as you’re drawing that line, it’s very tricky. If you say these vaccines are to kill you, that’s false. If you say, “Hey, I want to talk about how strong the safety data is and is there some rare side effect,” that’s very legitimate. What we work on every day is making sure that the net benefit is incredibly high. And, of course, you’ve got a debate for different populations like pregnant women, you know, how good is the data? How does it work? I mean, in the end, the regulators decide that, but you have to present them with the right information. So I don’t have, you know, some fix to [the conspiracy theories]. If it meant infectious disease was more interesting to people, that might be good, but I’m afraid that’s not where all the crazy talk is headed.
A couple more things. I know we’re running tight on time. One is you and I have talked before and I know that you’ve explored this for a long time, which is geo-engineering and especially solar engineering, where you essentially build artificial volcanoes, to put it simply, and put particles in the sky to cool things down. You’ve been a supporter of this for a while, research of this. It’s gaining momentum in the sort of scientific establishment. National Academy of Sciences is doing a study now. The IPCC has been talking about it. What have you learned about it in your research on this? And are you feeling more like we’re inevitably heading in this direction?
Well, no. You know, most aspects of climate, like there was a reexamination of the temperature data because people said that [University of] East Anglia [site of infamous “climategate” hack] had played with the numbers, so I funded the Koch brothers and I funded [University of California physics professor Richard] Muller to go back through and do it from scratch. And he said, no bias, no. So I fund a lot of things, anything that looks promising in climate. So saying I supported that in the sense that, yes, I provide money so that we can look into it. In terms of is it a technique that we understand enough about its overall weather effects, and wouldn’t it be better just to get rid of the emissions and not have to put this in place? I don’t support it because there’s so little we know about it.
And, of course governments would have to decide if things got really bad and, you know, people in the equator can’t grow food and hundreds of millions are migrating, the world will look for some way of delaying the heating, and having some notion whether these various either brightening cloud tops [using technology that encourages cloud formation] or particles in the stratosphere. But, you know, even if it’s just to disprove that it’s not a good thing, I don’t believe in making it a verboten topic. And governments really ought to dig into it and fund some activities around it so that if the time ever came where it was an emergency, they could consider whether to use it or not to use it, and not in a completely naive way. But I only gave it one page in the book because it is fair to say that if people think there’s some panacea thing, you know, like a heart operation or bariatric surgery, then maybe they just keep eating. And that is not the way to go on this one.
Right. So to wrap this up, Bill, you know, your title of your book is How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. And one of the questions that comes up is, what does a climate disaster mean? It’s common now to hear people talking about the climate crisis as an existential crisis. And the other day, climate envoy John Kerry was speaking at the UN Security Council and said essentially that if we don’t start reducing emissions fast, we are on, he called it, a mutual suicide pact. How do you respond to that kind of characterization of the scale of what we face with the climate crisis?
Well, the negative effects accumulate over time. And so if you keep putting CO2 in, you get arbitrary increases in temperature, and the natural ecosystems won’t survive that. The sea level rise will be gigantic. You won’t be able to live anywhere near the equator. And so certainly humans, if you want anywhere near the current population, you’ve got to intercede and not let the heating go on and on. So the nuanced question is how bad is it in any particular time frame? And, you know, the corals are probably gone. Most of the beaches we know will be gone. You know, the wildfires, the drying out of the internal area of the continent. You’d really like, say, southern India to stay livable for people to be able to farm there. If not, you’re talking about a panicked migration that creates civil war and unrest that’s a hundred times worse than what the Syrian civil war did, which that was tragic and quite a disruption.
So, you know, you just tell me how, you know, I’ll give you a year for how bad you want it to be if you let it go unchecked, it gets essentially arbitrarily bad. Now, the planet itself is actually pretty robust and somebody living alone in northern Canada, they might be OK. You know, the animals might all die off, but maybe they can grow some stuff. So it’s super bad. And how you educate people on that, it does involve often, like in the ice melting case, getting off into time frames that are way out in the future. You know, why are young people more engaged in the topic now? Is it because they’re learning more science? Is it because they know that the probability of these various weather events are higher? We really need the younger generation to be deeply committed to this thing so that the political priority stays high in all the rich countries for almost all of the next 30 years. That’s the magic ingredient. When I say to [author and energy scholar Vaclav] Smil, “Hey, yes, you don’t see in the history anything like this happening, but you didn’t have a whole generation of kids who it was a moral belief beyond their own individual success that they knew that this was important and that they were pushing.” So if 30 percent of young people are like Greta [Thunberg] and are willing to put the time in, then we are going to take this very seriously. You know, like a war or a pandemic. The numbers are way worse than the pandemic. I mean, the death rate is way beyond this pandemic and just getting worse every year. And you don’t have a vaccine to get out of it.