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Bill Gates lecture launches new Big Ideas series

The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability hosted the entrepreneur and philanthropist for a discussion about global health, energy, and the future of Earth’s climate.

Bill Gates, left, and Professor Thomas Jaramillo discuss challenges in sustainability onstage at the David and Joan Traitel Building. (Photo credit: Saul Bromberger)

A fireside chat with Bill Gates moderated by Professor Thomas Jaramillo explored how experts in policy, research, and business can work together to prioritize scalable climate innovations.

On Oct. 18, more than 800 Stanford students, faculty, and staff gathered to hear from entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Gates about his valuable perspective on global health, energy, and our climate future.

The talk was the inaugural lecture in the Big Ideas series hosted by the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, which aims to bring global thought leaders to campus to engage the entire Stanford community in sustainability discussions. “Given the urgency of climate change, we need to create a whole new paradigm of sustainable development,” Dean Arun Majumdar explained in his introduction.

“This will affect every human being and institution around the world because, after all, we are all part of nature. We’re talking about the biggest transition and transformation humanity has ever undertaken,” Majumdar said. “This cannot be achieved by extrapolating the past or by incremental small ideas – we need big ideas, and we need innovations.”

That fierce urgency gains momentum with this discussion, he added, introducing Gates as “a thought leader and a mover and shaker in areas that are extremely important to this planet.” He welcomed Gates to the stage along with Jaramillo in a packed auditorium at the David and Joan Traitel Building.

Gates may be best known for co-founding Microsoft and later leading the company until he stepped down in 2000. In 2008, he transitioned into full-time work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – reported to be the world’s largest private charity – raising and allocating funds to alleviate global inequities with a focus on improving health, energy, and policy in developing nations. Gates has invested vast sums in various climate technology solutions and publicly speaks about the urgent need to address human-caused climate change, bringing attention to major contributors, including companies burning fossil fuels.

A unique vantage point

It was through visiting Africa and talking with farmers about the challenges of failed crops and low yields that Gates started to understand the connections between global health and climate change. There, crop yields are only a quarter of wealthy nations’ because of a lack of improved seeds and fertilizers, he said.

“It was through that lens that I thought, ‘OK, I need to learn about climate change.’”

An interest in the relationship between climate and energy soon followed.

Jaramillo noted how Gates has been able to engage the globe through energy and climate action in a way that few others can, giving him “a vantage point that is somewhat unique.”

“Your willingness to share that knowledge with us and with others is just so important to help inform our activities,” Jaramillo added.

From his position with the foundation, Gates has watched the world turn its attention toward climate technology innovations in the past decade, a trend he described as extremely positive.

“When you think about progress, there are certain things that would reduce progress and you want to avoid those. And then you want to accelerate the good progress that’s going on,” Gates said. “A lot of people are not that aware of the progress that’s taking place.”

“In global health, for example, at the turn of the century, over 10 million children died every year under the age of 5 – and now we have that down below 5 million.”

He also listed what he sees as some of the “big, scary” challenges: climate change, AI, nuclear weapons, bioterrorism, and polarization. Despite improvements in clean technologies, achieving zero carbon emissions is “a very demanding goal,” he noted, especially for developing countries still building roads and shelter.

“The theory of change is very much that the middle-income countries that already account for 60 percent of emissions – and that number, that share, will actually go up over time – the only way you get them to adopt these clean technologies is if there isn’t some gigantic cost to doing that,” Gates said.

The importance of adaptation

After sharing his enthusiasm for technologies to mitigate climate change, the conversation shifted to the importance of bringing adaptation into the discussion. Adaptation to climate change can involve developing protection against sea level rise and increased flooding, relocating to higher ground, restoring ecosystems, diversifying crops, and more, depending on the part of the world and severity of climate impacts.

Most adaptation work needs to occur in developing countries, who are only responsible for 2 percent of emissions, Gates added.

“Adaptation doesn’t get much in the way of investment – and it needs to,” he said.

Gates shared some of the climate impacts already starting to occur, such as the presence of malaria at higher altitudes and the need for air conditioning among farming populations that may not be able to afford it.

“These problems can’t be solved independently,” Jaramillo said to the audience, which consisted largely of those from the newly launched Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. “I just want to encourage everybody to … really try to engage that multidisciplinary atmosphere, no matter what discipline you’re interested in, because that’s really, I think, what will be successful for us as a school, not only for those who are formally rostered in the new school, but also those who are outside the school.”

A financial perspective

On the topic of research and development, Gates discussed his efforts with Breakthrough Energy and other programs that help foster scientific approaches with potential for scalability. He pointed out the importance of people writing and teaching about systems change, policy, and innovation models, such as Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil and David Danielson, an affiliate with the Precourt Institute for Energy who co-teaches the year-long, project-based course ENERGY 203: Stanford Climate Ventures.

Climate products are particularly difficult from a financial perspective, Gates said. Unlike software, where you can always find a customer whose needs aren’t met or initially sell at a very low price, when you make steel and cement, he said, the challenge is to produce these commodities without a large amount of emissions. Together, the steel and cement industries currently account for about 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“That bootstrap market is far more difficult in this space,” he added. “And that’s why policy work and great finance, marketing people are part of the magic equation.”

Elaborating on the shifting market structure, Gates said wealthy nations need to do two things: Set an example for the world by getting their emissions down to zero, and innovate in such a way that new systems can be adopted by middle-income countries.

“The collective action problem will not be solved without innovating the cost down very, very dramatically,” he added.

Financial issues also tie into policy change, which has the potential to help keep the cost down. A lot of people who care about climate want to find somebody else to pay the bill, he said.

“Getting those premiums down is probably the only way you’re going to be able to maintain climate progress without creating this backlash that plays into that somewhat partisan view of the issue,” he said. “So if I have one wish, it would be to get everybody committed to this cause and to be looking for the minimal cost for how to achieve it through innovation.

Attendees watch the discussion in the auditorium at the David and Joan Traitel Building. (Photo credit: Saul Bromberger)

In a Q&A, Gates responded to inquiries from Stanford students about AI, finance, nuclear power, and concrete.

With a question about financing climate adaptation solutions, Gates responded: “That’s got to be grant money, philanthropic money, not something where you ever get a financial return on it. And that’s partly why adaptation is so hard.”

Grant money is finite and a justice issue, he added, “and we need some new ideas, I think, in that space, on how to make that happen.”

On the role of nuclear energy, he discussed how simulator software shows that building a green grid without fission and fusion “is not going to happen any time soon.”

“So even though nuclear fission has many challenges and nuclear fusion has many challenges, I think it’s very important that we invest in solving those problems,” he added.

The talk closed with Jaramillo asking Gates what advice he would give to the students in the audience. He responded with positivity, noting the complexity of the climate problem, but also the opportunity to learn about politics, economics, and diverse sciences.

“Learning the broad phenomena and the various sciences that that gives you an opportunity to get amazed by, I think it’s fascinating,” he said. “So we need people who bring kind of a holistic view of the problem in addition to their deep specialization.”

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