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Bill Gates on tackling climate change and the ongoing pandemic response

All of us face the risk that extreme weather events like the recent one in Texas will become more common and more destructive occurrences because of climate change. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has studied climate change for years, and he has prescriptions in his latest book, "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster." He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    All of us face the risk that extreme weather events, like the one last week in Texas, will become more common and more destructive occurrences because of climate change.

    Former Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has studied climate change for years. And he has prescriptions in his latest book, "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster."

    Bill Gates, thank you very much for joining us.

    And I do want to start with Texas, still reeling from what happened last week. Do you think that this is something that could have been avoided?

  • Bill Gates:

    Oh, absolutely.

    The reason that the — they had shutdowns in all their power sources was a lack of weatherization. They didn't expect to have these cold temperatures. All of those types of generators work in states like North Dakota and Alaska that are far colder, but extra money was put in for weatherization.

    But the two things it does show us is that we're going to have extreme events like this because of climate change, and the second is that, whatever our plan is for electricity generation, we will have to keep it reliable. The toughest times are when it's super cold and when it's super hot.

    And creating the right market structure, so that we remain reliability, is going to be an issue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And for those out there who are still questioning the connection between freezing temperatures in Texas and global warming, what is the explanation?

  • Bill Gates:

    Well, the world has had these wind patterns that keep cold fronts from up in Canada from coming down into the Midwest.

    And as those wind patterns break down, it just makes events like last week substantially more common. And so, weirdly, climate change involves more floods and more drought. A lot of it is the extra heat, where you won't be able to work outdoors at some point. But it also allows this type of cold event.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's talk about the book.

    It is, as we have said, on climate change. I think, Bill Gates, many people know that you and your wife, Melinda Gates, have been very focused for areas on global poverty and health challenges.

    What many may not know is that you have also been very focused on climate and the disaster that you say may be looming if we don't make big changes. You don't tackle the small problems, do you?

  • Bill Gates:

    No. And, in fact, it is the work of the foundation, where I was out in Africa, seeing that farmers were having their crops fail more often and also seeing that they needed electricity that got me in about 2005 to really invest in learning, you know, how hard would this be to solve? What was necessary?

    So, it started with that Africa lens, even though it is a problem for the entire world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you don't — and, Bill, but you don't sugarcoat the problem either. Essentially, you were saying that, if by the year 2050, we don't take out 51 billion tons a year of carbon emissions, we're facing a disaster.

    What do you mean by that?

  • Bill Gates:

    Well, I mean, that the natural ecosystems die off, things like all the coral reefs.

    I mean that the beaches disappear. You have you know trees dying off and lots of wildfires. You have the ability to grow food in the Southern grow food in the Southern part of the U.S. is dramatically reduced.

    For the world, it will create literally tens of millions of climate refugees, because the closer you are to the equator, the more unlivable that it gets. And so it makes the pandemic look small. The death rate by the end of the century would be over five times the worst of the — what we have had in this pandemic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And when you say climate refugees, you mean literally people having to pick up and leave where they live.

  • Bill Gates:

    Exactly.

    The poorest in the world live near the equator. And they are subsistence farmers. And when they don't see that they are able to feed their family, that creates incredible instability and incredible migration. And so this will be the world's biggest migration ever, as those areas become unlivable, where they have crop failures and they aren't able to work outdoors.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What is so fascinating, among other things, about the book, is that you don't — it's not the usual prescriptions, use solar panels, recycle, think about electric vehicles.

    You're talking about a massive change in virtually the way we do everything, the way we make things, as you put it, the way we make electricity, how we make cement, steel. These are huge challenges that you are asking essentially the wealthiest countries in the world to take on.

  • Bill Gates:

    Yes, so the power of innovation is very strong in the United States, the universities, the national labs, the willingness to take risks.

    And so our responsibility is not just to get rid of our emissions, but also to reduce the cost of being green, to reduce the extra amount, what I call the green premium that you pay when you want to make something like steel or cement in a green fashion.

    And those premiums are very, very high. And unless we get them down, the middle-income countries, like India, will continue to have emissions, which means that, as long as you have emissions, sadly, because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years, the temperature just keeps going on up.

    And that's why zero is what we need. And that is why an awareness of all sorts of emissions that add up to that 51 billion, the book is trying to make sure it is not just the two that people understand the most, electricity and transportation, but also buildings, agriculture, and then manufacturing, which is actually the biggest of all, including large amounts just from steel and cement alone.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But big changes, in a sense, in the way we live, and what we're surrounded by every day.

  • Bill Gates:

    Well, hopefully, if the green premium for cement comes down, we won't have to change how we use it.

    Likewise, for driving, as electric cars are — the cost is going down, the range is going up, the charge points are going up. That's why, more in 10 or 15 years, even without subsidies, the green premium will be zero. That is, the electric car will be every bit as attractive and low-cost as the gasoline car, which is why a private company like GM, when they announce that they will stop making gasoline cars in 2035, it's a rational thing.

    It's not a government requirement. It's the market, because we have, through tax credits and other policies, driven up the volume. And then that — as you scale up, the competition and innovation has approved the electric car.

    So, we have one category, passenger cars, that we have got a clear path to get rid of those emissions. But now we need to create that same innovation, scale-up, competition in all the other sources of emissions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I also want to ask you about the terrible milestone we passed today as a country in the pandemic. And 500,000 Americans have now died as a result of COVID-19.

    Is that something that you thought in the beginning might happen? You have studied viruses. You have studied the science of what's taken place. Did you expect this to happen?

  • Bill Gates:

    Yes, I gave a talk in 2015 and wrote a lot of articles titled: We're not ready for the next pandemic.

    And the model showed had globally 30 million deaths from a flu. This could have been worse. That is, the virus could have been more fatal. Even so, 500,000 just for our country, which is the highest in the world, is so unbelievably tragic.

    Large numbers like that almost feel like a statistic. But if you know people, then it really brings home that these are people's grandparents. This has touched us. And even the deaths alone don't capture the full negative effects of this pandemic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You do say in the book, Bill Gates, that we will get COVID-19 under control in 2021. What does under control mean? I mean, what does it mean that we will be heading back to something approaching normal again?

  • Bill Gates:

    Yes, so the virus is somewhat seasonal. That is, in the colder months, for a variety of reasons, it spreads a lot.

    So, our goal has to be to, as we get into summer, get the numbers way down, and then not experience another wave in the fall. And, of course, vaccination by the fall should be bearing the brunt of that. We will still have some restrictions on public gatherings, because, as long as the disease is out there in other countries, you can still get big chains of infection here.

    But if we get the vaccination levels up enough, this fall, basically, all the schools will be open under some protocol. Entertainment, travel will be open. And so the economy will be on the mend in a big way. We will still have some limits.

    But then, when we get the entire world vaccinated, we really can start to build back in a huge way, including things like the educational deficits that lots of students have. The private sector, with some help from the government, has stepped up.

    I wish, in climate, there was this one magic thing like a vaccine you could invent, and then the problem would go away. Unfortunately, the scale, the number of things is much harder there.

    But the pandemic, as bad as it's been, the end is in sight.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You do say in the book that climate change, much bigger challenge even than this pandemic.

  • Bill Gates:

    No, far bigger.

    Some countries started diagnosing people early and kept the exponential spread down. And so Australia hasn't had anything, in terms of deaths or lack of schooling or restrictions, that we have had.

    And we will be doing postmortems. I know that this one, and I will — the foundation will be involved in making sure that the right investments are made this time, so we're ready for the next pandemic. That's a lot easier than solving climate change.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Bill Gates, the book, the new book, is titled "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need."

    Thank you very much. We appreciate it.

  • Bill Gates:

    Yes, great to talk to you.

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