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Innovating to Zero: Bill Gates (Full Transcript)

And so, there are different ones, but the beauty of this is a molecule of uranium has a million times as much energy as a molecule of, say, coal. And so, if you can deal with the negatives, which are essentially the radiation, the footprint and cost, the potential, in terms of effect on land and various things, is almost in a class of its own.

CHRIS ANDERSON: If this doesn’t work, then what? Do we have to start taking emergency measures to try and keep the temperature of the earth stable?

BILL GATES: If you get into that situation, it’s like if you’ve been overeating, and you’re about to have a heart attack. Then where do you go? You may need heart surgery or something. There is a line of research on what’s called geoengineering, which are various techniques that would delay the heating to buy us 20 or 30 years to get our act together.

Now, that’s just an insurance policy; you hope you don’t need to do that. Some people say you shouldn’t even work on the insurance policy because it might make you lazy, that you’ll keep eating because you know heart surgery will be there to save you. I’m not sure that’s wise, given the importance of the problem, but there’s now the geoengineering discussion about: Should that be in the back pocket in case things happen faster, or this innovation goes a lot slower than we expect?

CHRIS ANDERSON: Climate skeptics: If you had a sentence or two to say to them, how might you persuade them that they’re wrong?

BILL GATES: Well, unfortunately, the skeptics come in different camps. The ones who make scientific arguments are very few. Are they saying there’s negative feedback effects that have to do with clouds that offset things? There are very, very few things that they can even say there’s a chance in a million of those things.

The main problem we have here — it’s kind of like with AIDS: you make the mistake now, and you pay for it a lot later. And so, when you have all sorts of urgent problems, the idea of taking pain now that has to do with a gain later, and a somewhat uncertain pain thing.

In fact, the IPCC report — that’s not necessarily the worst case, and there are people in the rich world who look at IPCC and say, “OK, that isn’t that big of a deal.” The fact is it’s that uncertain part that should move us towards this.

But my dream here is that, if you can make it economic, and meet the CO2 constraints, then the skeptics say, “OK, I don’t care that it doesn’t put out CO2, I kind of wish it did put out CO2. But I guess I’ll accept it, because it’s cheaper than what’s come before.”

CHRIS ANDERSON: So that would be your response to the Bjørn Lomborg argument, basically if you spend all this energy trying to solve the CO2 problem, it’s going to take away all your other goals of trying to rid the world of poverty and malaria and so forth, it’s a stupid waste of the Earth’s resources to put money towards that when there are better things we can do.

BILL GATES: Well, the actual spending on the R&D piece — say the US should spend 10 billion a year more than it is right now — it’s not that dramatic. It shouldn’t take away from other things.

The thing you get into big money on, and reasonable people can disagree, is when you have something that’s non-economic and you’re trying to fund that — that, to me, mostly is a waste. Unless you’re very close, and you’re just funding the learning curve and it’s going to get very cheap, I believe we should try more things that have a potential to be far less expensive.

If the trade-off you get into is, “Let’s make energy super expensive,” then the rich can afford that. I mean, all of us here could pay five times as much for our energy and not change our lifestyle. The disaster is for that two billion.

And even Lomborg has changed. His shtick now is, “Why isn’t the R&D; getting more discussed?” He’s still, because of his earlier stuff, still associated with the skeptic camp, but he’s realized that’s a pretty lonely camp, and so, he’s making the R&D point.

And so there is a thread of something that I think is appropriate. The R&D piece — it’s crazy how little it’s funded.

CHRIS ANDERSON: Well, Bill, I suspect I speak on behalf of most people here to say I really hope your wish comes true. Thank you so much.

BILL GATES: Thank you.


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Resources for Further Reading: 

How Supercharged Plants Could Slow Climate Change: Joanne Chory (Transcript)

The Most Important Thing You Can Do to Fight Climate Change: Talk About It by Katharine Hayhoe

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