: [Editor's note: The introduction of this interview with Bill Gates should have stated that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is an NPR funder.]
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's been called the greatest existential threat of our time. It has already had devastating effects on people throughout the world. I'm talking about climate change. And now Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, one of the world's most prominent business leaders and philanthropists, 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." In it, he outlines how his own thinking on this topic has evolved over the years and describes a path forward to this that everybody can participate in in some way.
Bill Gates, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.
BILL GATES: Great to talk to you.
MARTIN: Let's just begin where you begin, with two numbers - 51 billion and zero. Fifty-one billion is the number of tons of greenhouse gas the world emits every year, and zero is how much we need to get to. You say there is no in between. Why is that?
GATES: Well, sadly, as long as you're emitting CO2, you're causing the temperature to go up. And so all the dire effects of, you know, coral reefs dying off, of it becoming, you know, basically impossible to work outdoors in the tropical regions - you know, 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, you know, look at why it's so expensive right now to make those products in a way that does not involve emissions.
MARTIN: So one of the things you grapple with very forthrightly, in my view, is that you write about the needs and wants of people who don't have a lot now and want a better standard of living. I mean, electrical power, for example - you know, one of the reasons why carbon emissions are as high as they are is that more people have access to things like electrical power. But the more people build these projects, the more emissions we have. You know, alternatives are expensive.
I mean, the fact is that the most developed countries are the ones who have contributed the most to this problem. How do you argue that, you know, countries who want to improve their people's standard of living should, you know, make different choices when they aren't the ones who contributed the most to this problem to begin with? I mean, how do we even have that conversation?
GATES: Well, the key thing is that if we - you know, 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.
MARTIN: So I take it that you are excited about innovation in a number of spheres. I know that you're excited about nuclear energy as one of the sort of alternate sources of energy. Would you talk a little about that? I mean, I think it's fair to say that, you know, nuclear energy has kind of waxed and waned in its attractiveness over the years. I think a lot of people are terrified of it. So how do you deal with the fears that people have about it?
GATES: 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, you know, 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, you know, are fairly extreme, and yet people expect their electricity to stay on.
MARTIN: You know, I'm still fascinated by - I mean, I understand that you're an engineer, but are facts enough? I mean, you say this in your - toward the end of the book. You say that, you know, unfortunately, the conversation about climate change has become unnecessarily polarized, not to mention clouded by conflicting information and confusing stories. You say we need to make the debate more thoughtful and constructive.
But, I mean - and you do put a lot of hope in facts. You say, my hope is that we can shift the conversation by sharing the facts with the people in our lives. But, you know, doesn't that describe a lot of our public discourse now - unnecessarily polarized around things that really shouldn't be? And I just wonder, what's the answer to that, I mean, if the issue here really isn't the facts? We know what the facts are.
GATES: 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. You know, 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, you know, the pandemic shows that you can't wait until the disaster hits to be ready. And so the part about engaging an entire generation - you know, I'm - 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.
MARTIN: So before we let you go, what are some of the things that people listening to our conversation can do? Because you can - I think you can see why it can be easy to feel a little hopeless about this.
GATES: 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, you know, 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 - you know, buying, you know, green products with their purchasing power and taking, you know, their skillset and contributing. So, you know, you've got to use all those ways of influencing the world and, you know, drive both understanding and commitment to this thing to a level even beyond where we are right now.
MARTIN: Bill Gates is the co-founder of Microsoft and the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. His latest book, "How To Avoid A Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have And The Breakthroughs We Need," is out now.
Mr. Gates, Bill Gates, thank you so much for talking with us today.
GATES: Thank you.
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