Bill Gates Talks Climate Peril and Election 2016 (Oh, and Beyoncé)
Bill Gates is a lot of things. A wildly successful entrepreneur who helped spawn the personal computer revolution. A generous philanthropist who broke the billions barrier in personal giving. A name dropped by Beyoncé as an emblem of (white, male) success.
Since leaving Microsoft, Gates has joined his wife, Melinda, to dedicate himself to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the couple’s world-famous philanthropic organization. Much of their work is devoted to combating poverty and its effects around the world. Among its efforts, the foundation has sought to provide better sewage systems for developing nations and donated vaccines to fight malaria.
Owing to his successes—and, well, his wealth—people listen when Bill Gates speaks. And now he’s spoken again. Today he and Melinda have released their latest annual letter from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This year, the issue most on his mind is climate change, and on hers, improving the lives of women. These are the kinds of world-scale issues that attract the couple every year; what’s different in 2016 is their decision to address this year’s letter to high school students. But it’s not surprising when you think about it: today’s teens will be dealing with these issues longer than the rest of us.
WIRED recently talked to Gates about the letter. Along the way, we asked him about the presidential election, youth and government, tech and philanthropy, and, ahem, other pressing issues of the day.
How do you feel about Beyoncé using your name in the lyrics of her latest song?
Yeah, I hadn’t realized that she did that until somebody in the office actually sent me a copy of the lyrics and I said, “Are you serious? This is kind of a strange set of words here.” I’m surprised—I’m not sure she said those words at the Super Bowl, though, did she?
I’m not sure, I’d have to look back. [Ed note: She did.] But it’s one of the lyrics that’s been passed around a lot.
I guess it’s nice that people consider me successful. I actually haven’t met Beyoncé. I know Jay-Z, because when I did some humor right when I was retiring from Microsoft—he was nice about participating in that, and did a great job on that. I guess I should do a Bing search and see if there are more uses of my name that I don’t know about.
I just wanted to ask that question right away in case we ran out of time. But going back to your letter, I’m curious to know how you and Melinda pick which issues to focus on.
This year, energy was very much on some people’s minds because of the Paris conference and the climate agreements reached there. I’m personally involved in putting together a group of private investors that will invest in breakthrough energy solutions. And the Gates Foundation is reaching out to various funds, like the Green Climate Fund.
Then, by coincidence, when Melinda and I were in Kentucky, two high school students interviewed us and asked us this question about superpowers. That’s when I talked about having more energy. The fact that you can flip a light switch and the light comes on, or change the thermostat, or start your car with a key—that’s a magical thing that defines modern lifestyles. Yet that’s not available broadly in Africa or parts of Asia, including India. The idea is to work on energy research and development that doesn’t just work in the rich countries; what we’re trying to achieve here requires all the very few (rich) countries to get to zero emissions.
For Melinda, most of her issues have some kind of women’s lens on them. Her idea is about getting more time. What she’s seen in poor countries—women gathering wood, getting clean water—that often means the younger girls don’t get to study or attend school. It kind of connects back to the lack of energy. And it’s something people appreciate because even in rich countries, there’s still this (gender) imbalance. People can relate to it and realize that in conditions of poverty, it’s dramatically more freeing than it is here.
Any specific reason why your letter is addressed to high school students?
One thing Melinda and I have is a long-term view—what can be done in 20 or 30 years. When you’re talking about changing social norms—like about work and the household, or changing energy systems—some people say it’s optimistic to think you can even make a difference in that time frame.
Progress is mostly generational in nature. That’s where you hope to count on young people who know they’re going to be around, who care about the environment, who have a real sense of priorities and a real sense of possibilities. Maybe some will get involved in policies, others in science. But all of them, hopefully, will have a political voice to put out there. They’re the generation that will see invention and change taking place, in their 20s and 30s.
This is the first time you addressed your letter to high school students, is that right?
Yes, and we hope that’ll get some attention. Of course, the letter is for people to think about energy and to think about policy—we’re not trying to exclude anyone. But it’ll be interesting to see how much engagement we get from the young people we’re targeting.
What about short-term solutions? Is it useful to consider them?
Well, let’s just take climate as an example. The thing that’s a problem with climate is you have, on the one hand, a group of people who don’t think it’s a problem. And another group of people who do think it’s a problem, but think that if we just use a lot more wind and solar, costs will magically be reliable. But without some amazing innovation on the energy grid and storage, and on getting prices down, that doesn’t work. I use an equation in the letter to explain what it means to get to zero carbon emissions. The idea is when you see that equation, you understand the mind-blowing nature of getting to zero.
And if you think about this problem through the eyes of India, you better come up with this stuff in the next few decades because they’ll be doing so much electrification. Without innovation, they’ll do it using coal.
We need to get people calling for research increases. Now twenty countries, including the US, have virtually doubled their R&D over five years. But Congress has the final say on these things. In 2016, they did actually start down the path and made a budget increase, and I’m hopeful it will be a bipartisan effort. Increasing R&D will spur US innovation, US jobs, and getting the price of energy down … even if some of the energy matters might not get bipartisan support.
Especially in this election year, what’s your hope for moving these issues forward and what the government’s role can be in that?
I’ve had a chance to meet with people on both sides of the aisle, both in the House and Senate. The long-term nature of the issue means the role of basic research is particularly important. The US does a lot in medical research, and the government’s done amazing things that became the foundational pieces for US leadership in the digital revolution. But surprisingly, even if we talk about energy issues in security, and the climate challenge—the energy budget in the States flagged last these last 15 years.
I’m hopeful that Republicans and Democrats will see the energy budget as something worthwhile. We’re seeing some positive signs. The budget is very tight, but we’ve been a little out of balance. The supply of innovation comes from funding R&D, while demand for energy innovation comes from things like tax credits. Or, state by state, various renewable energy standards.
Our hope is this $6 billion R&D budget over a five-year period goes up to $12 billion a year. Compared to a lot of other things in the budget, including how much is spent on the demand for clean energy, that’s not a huge amount.
Is there a candidate running right now who you think understands these issues deeply and can get behind them?
Well, Congress is really key here because this is the budget. The presidential debates haven’t brought up R&D or energy much. It’s possible that there will be discussion about it in the months ahead. But, you know, these candidates aren’t scientists. The key will be the kind of advisors that they bring in around them. The thing that really needs to start now is that R&D piece. The idea that American innovation is important and great—I don’t think anyone’s going to go against that.
So that’s the government piece of it. How do you see the tech industry and philanthropy fitting into the equation and giving it balance?
The tech industry is a big energy user. We’re seeing Google, Microsoft, and others really try to do things efficiently, to come up with new cooling techniques, to try to make sure that as much of the energy we use is as green as possible. The true breakthrough of how you make electricity 24 hours a day or how you store electricity—that’s not the deep expertise of these companies. But for being customers for these things, tech can play a constructive role, and I think that is absolutely what is happening.
On the philanthropic side, you always have to consider the negative impact of climate change. On that front, I wish there was more philanthropy going to improve agriculture—which is where you’ll see the most suffering. Now, we’re going to see some more government money and more philanthropic money get into that. But there’s a lot more that philanthropy can do there.
Interview edited for length and clarity.