‘We Need an Energy Miracle’

  • 2015-10-29
  • The Atlantic

In his offices overlooking Lake Washington, just east of Seattle, Bill Gates grabbed a legal pad recently and began covering it in his left-handed scrawl. He scribbled arrows by each margin of the pad, both pointing inward. The arrow near the left margin, he said, represented how governments worldwide could stimulate ingenuity to combat climate change by dramatically increasing spending on research and development. “The push is the R&D,” he said, before indicating the arrow on the right. “The pull is the carbon tax.” Between the arrows he sketched boxes to represent areas, such as deployment of new technology, where, he argued, private investors should foot the bill. He has pledged to commit $2 billion himself.

“Yes, the government will be somewhat inept,” he said brusquely, swatting aside one objection as a trivial statement of the obvious. “But the private sector is in general inept. How many companies do venture capitalists invest in that go poorly? By far most of them.”

Gates is on a solo global lobbying campaign to press his species to accomplish something on a scale it has never attempted before. He wants human beings to invent their way out of the coming collision with planetary climate change, accelerating a transition to new forms of energy that might normally take a century or more. To head off a rise in average global temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels—the goal set by international agreement—Gates believes that by 2050, wealthy nations like China and the United States, the most prodigious belchers of greenhouse gases, must be adding no more carbon to the skies.

Those who study energy patterns say we are in a gradual transition from oil and coal to natural gas, a fuel that emits far less carbon but still contributes to global warming. Gates thinks that we can’t accept this outcome, and that our best chance to vault over natural gas to a globally applicable, carbon-free source of energy is to drive innovation “at an unnaturally high pace.”