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Bill Gates Weighs In On 'How To Avoid A Climate Disaster' With New Book

<em>How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need,</em> by Bill Gates
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, by Bill Gates

Editor's note: The introduction of this interview with Bill Gates should have stated that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is an NPR funder.

Climate change has been called the greatest existential threat of our time — and it has already had devastating effects on people throughout the world.

Now Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, one of the world's most prominent business leaders and philanthropists — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been a supporter of NPR — is sharing his thoughts on how to solve it.

In his new book How To Avoid A Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have And The Breakthroughs We Need, he outlines how his own thinking on the topic has evolved over the years — and he describes a path forward that he says everybody can participate in in some way.

Interview Highlights

On his belief that the world has to reduce emissions of greenhose gasses from 51 billion tons a year to zero

Sadly, as long as you're emitting CO2, you're causing the temperature to go up. And so all the dire effects of coral reefs dying off, of it becoming, you know, basically impossible to work outdoors in the tropical regions — these things are simply proportional to how many of those emissions you make. And so it gets hotter and hotter until you actually get down to the ultimate goal, which is the zero emissions. And that's why you have to know all the different sources of emissions and look at why it's so expensive right now to make those products in a way that does not involve emissions.

On the fact that developed countries have contributed the most to this problem — and the argument that countries wanting to improve their standard of living should make different choices

The key thing is that if we — take India as a good example of a developing country whose historical emissions have been very low, but if they keep doing things the same way we've done them, their emissions will be very high. And so only through innovations that bring that down by about 95%, then it is reasonable you could say, OK, not only did the U.S. reduce its own emissions, but the U.S. used its — the power of government R&D and private market risk-taking to create these products that will allow you to keep building basic shelter and providing lights at night and air conditioning at a very basic level without the massive emissions that would result if they don't change.

On his being excited about nuclear energy — and people's fears about it

Even though nuclear, you know, per unit of energy, has caused far, far less deaths than coal or natural gas, any design that has high pressure or requires operators to do something as opposed to just using physics to show that the radioactive material cannot escape, it's always going to cause concerns. And so this is an area where we should keep it alive as an option. If we can create that green grid that will have to be three times as large because it's taking over from gasoline to power cars and natural gas to heat homes — if we could do that without something that isn't weather-dependent and still keep the reliability, that would be great. But as we saw in Texas, we have these weather events that are fairly extreme, and yet people expect their electricity to stay on.

On making the climate change debate more thoughtful and constructive — and puting hope in facts

Well, I don't think the understanding of climate change is nearly as deep as it needs to be. And, you know, unless this becomes a gigantic cause — and we see signs that's the case, the interest level usually when we have something like a pandemic, the interest in long-term problems often goes away. And we saw that during the financial crisis. During this crisis, actually, interest in climate, particularly in young people, went up quite substantially.

Now, part of that is they're seeing the sea level rise and the wildfires and the inability to do typical farming in the southern parts of the country. And, you know, so the early effects are upon us. But the pandemic shows that you can't wait until the disaster hits to be ready. And so the part about engaging an entire generation — I think there's incredibly creative people out there who are going to help drive that. And so my contribution was to say, OK, here's a plan: If we're going to use every year of the next 30 years and make this a priority, then, you know, here's the metrics, and here's the outline of how you accelerate about that.

On what people can do

Well, everybody needs to learn more. And they need to share those learnings, hopefully, with people from both parties. So your political voice is very important. Your purchasing voice and — an electric car, artificial meat, looking at the products you buy in terms of the emissions they're involved with — and then making sure that the company you work for is leading the way, buying green products with their purchasing power and taking, you know, their skillset and contributing. So, you've got to use all those ways of influencing the world — and drive both understanding and commitment to this thing to a level even beyond where we are right now.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.