This Tuesday, Bill Gates Zoomed with Columbia University students to discuss his new book, answer student questions, and, hopefully, solve climate change.

On February 23rd, SIPA’s Center on Global Energy Policy held a Zoom event open to all University faculty, staff, and students, titled “A Conversation with Bill Gates: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.”

SIPA’s Dean Merit E. Janow, who introduced Gates, also took a moment to celebrate the forthcoming opening of the Columbia Climate School. Announced in July 2020, the Columbia Climate School will be the University’s first new School in 25 years and the country’s first to be dedicated to climate change.

After Dean Janow’s introduction of Bill Gates and his newest book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, the screen transforms into a montage of inspiring, National-Geographic-style video clips, which are timed perfectly with an intense orchestral score; glaciers fall apart, Amazonian treetops sway, and the Milky Way shines through a clear night sky. A man walks on the moon, the smallpox vaccine is invented, and so on. Bill Gates’ voice narrates, “I once had a wild idea…” Someday in the future, he thought, everyone should have their own computer. Now? The idea is a tame one. What we need, he tells us, are more breakthroughs like these.

When the video ends, Gates sits before us in his trademark navy sweater and dark-rimmed glasses. His camera quality and lighting are impeccable, and his glowing, white, corner-of-the-living-room background is so perfect it might be a set.

Jason Bordoff, Founding Director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at SIPA, moderates the event, and the transitions between Bordoff, Gates, and Gates’ Powerpoint slides are blissfully smooth and error-free. It quickly becomes clear that this is not Gates’ first Zoom event.

The first half of the hour-long discussion functions as a back-and-forth between Bordoff and Gates. In its second half, Gates answers some pre-selected student questions and others that have been sent through the chat. Here are some key takeaways from Tuesday’s conversation.

Why this book now?

In the early 2000s, Bill Gates began doing work in Africa, where he spent time learning about the consequences of decreasing crop productivity, more frequent droughts, and ultimately, the impact of climate change.

In 2010, he gave a TED Talk titled “Innovating to Zero” about decreasing carbon emissions. (He notes that this talk is second in popularity only in popularity to a TED Talk he gave in 2015 about the threat of a global pandemic.)

Finally, in 2015, Gates developed Breakthrough Energy, a climate venture group, and now, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is the natural next step in his commitment to solving climate change.

Why is achieving Net Zero so important?

Gates noted that CO2 in the atmosphere has a thousand-year resonance. By the end of the century, farming near the equator will be practically impossible, leading to a northward migration that will be larger than anything we’ve ever experienced. Besides a “tiny wiggle” for the pandemic, Gates emphasized that these CO2 numbers have only gone up.

On taking climate change seriously

Incredible work has to be done on either energy storage or a new generation of nuclear fission. Gates told students that it’s time to start stepping past idealism and entering the planning stage. One goal is to get the amount we spend on climate research all the way up to the amount we spend on health research, creating new jobs and exports along the way.

On the Green Premium

According to Gates, the Green Premium is the golden metric with regard to clean energy and lowering emissions. The Green Premium is the difference between the cost of developing a product that’s green and the cost of manufacturing the standard non-green version of that same product. For example, electric cars are relatively inexpensive to make compared to non-green cars, so the Green Premium for cars is low. Some of the highest Green Premiums have to do with large-scale building and manufacturing, meaning it’s far more expensive to produce things like cement, iron, steel, and certain chemicals in a way that’s green and low-emission compared to how we produce them now. Ideally, we’ll work toward finding ways to lower Green Premiums in all industries.

What can we do to base public opinion in science?

Gates thinks that, in the near future, younger generations should definitely be taught required classes on the basics, implications, and effects of climate change on our planet. We also need to be able to look up to officials and experts whom we can trust.

How do we get the world’s wealthiest individuals and companies to contribute?

Gates believes that the US could tax more progressively, saying “People like myself could pay more.” Still, Gates also believes there’s a willingness and growing awareness of the implications of climate change. Although he thinks standards need to be more rigorous, Gates sees companies stepping up.

On nuclear power

According to Gates, we need a new design for nuclear power. We’re still using the 1950s water-cooling system in nuclear plants, only now with many expensive layers of complex safety additions. These additions cause the cost of nuclear energy to be four times more expensive than natural gas alternatives. We need a new design that is inherently safe and doesn’t require expensive additions. When it comes to nuclear power, there’s also an issue of public perception. Although nuclear energy’s actual safety record is good, it’s hard for individuals to see that. Gates noted that people don’t seem to pay the same sort of attention to the safety issues that result from coal and natural gas. He shared that he hopes people will be able to have open minds toward nuclear power in the future.

What can individuals do to change the course of climate change?

  • Educate yourself, and share what you learn with one Democrat and one Republican.
  • Get involved politically; policy matters.
  • “We’re all consumers,” Gates said. Soon, more and more goods will be labeled in terms of their emission impact. Pay attention! And if you’re into it, invest in Beyond Meat.
  • Lastly, Gates acknowledged that the majority of his listeners are soon to enter the labor market. “Raise the bar for your employer,” he advised. The goal is to have people feel pressured into participating in this monumental task.

Photo via Bwog Staff