Bill Gates speaks with DC college students on climate change

The former Microsoft CEO discusses his new book and the challenges facing the world in the age of climate change.

Dónal Gannon, Writer

Students from Howard University, Georgetown University, George Washington University and American University participated in a virtual discussion of climate change Wednesday with philanthropist and former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, moderated by CBS anchor Michell Miller.

Gates took questions from students about his new book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need” as well as how he believes the world can get to zero global emissions in the coming decades. Gate’s book looks at many aspects of our lives that need to change in order to achieve zero emissions — from the food we consume to the concrete and steel we build with.

“How can we mitigate the spread of environmental misinformation, which has led to a strikingly large percentage of Americans rejecting not only the urgency, but the factual evidence of climate issues?” AU student Linnea Capobianco asked.

“Fortunately there’s less and less of that, partly the industries that were funding that misinformation backed off from that,” Gates said. As the evidence grows more clear, denial of climate change has been on the decline. 

According to Pew Research Center, support for mitigating climate change and enacting more environmental policies have grown over 20% over the past 12 years, both now having support by a majority of Americans.

Gates explained that innovation and investment in research will be crucial if we are to achieve the world’s long-term climate goals. 

“The U.S government is a big funder of [research and development and the greatest example of that is funding for medical research out of the National Institute of Health. It’s made huge progress on things like cancer and heart disease,” Gates said. “On the [research and development] side, we’d like to see similar effort to the NIH but now focused on climate change.”

Politics play an important role in the United States’ commitment to combating climate change, according to Gates. “This is not a problem you can make progress for four years and then stop for four years.”

 The talk also discussed the country’s recent re-entry into the Paris Climate Accord under the Biden administration. 

“It was tragic to have the U.S. withdraw from the Paris Agreement, because there’s many more countries making more progress than we are,” Gates said. “The responsibility of the U.S. government isn’t just to get rid of our own emissions, we’re 15% of global emissions, and yes we’re the richest country, but if we use an expensive brute force approach to reduce our emissions, then it doesn’t help the rest of the world.”

The United States is the second largest producer of carbon emissions, and over 50% of total emissions in the world come from China, the U.S, India and Russia, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Part of Gates’ solutions to the energy crisis is nuclear power, which unlike solar and wind, is not  reliant on weather conditions. Nuclear power currently makes up roughly 20% of American electricity generation, according to the Energy Information Administration. “It may be a necessary part of how we solve climate change,” Gates said

Beyond moving away from high emission power and products, Gates discussed the need for equity and justice for minority communities who have faced harsher consequences of climate change such as heat islands — concentrations of heat around urban areas which disproportionately affect people of color.

Since stepping down from his role as CEO of Microsoft in 2008, Gates has dedicated his time to furthering a variety of philanthropic causes, ranging from vaccinations to climate change. Gates has invested roughly $2 billion in climate change innovation, including plant based meat substitutes and cement that stores carbon dioxide.

Gates closed the talk telling the audience that it will be the younger generation who will have to get the world to zero emissions by 2050. 

“I hope I’m around, I’ll be 95. It will be so amazing to celebrate that the young generation drove us to solve this very very tough problem,” Gates said.