Bill Gates has gone from 0 to 100 on climate change and it shows in the words he uses

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 19, 2021


“Everyone who thinks at all has noticed that our language is practically useless for describing anything that goes on inside the brain.”
– George Orwell

Me too. Like Connie Hedegaard, I too thought Bill Gates was supremely uninterested in climate change.

Ms Hedegaard, former European Commissioner for climate action and Denmark’s former environment minister and minister for climate and energy, recently interviewed the Microsoft founder and good Samaritan for Project Syndicate. The occasion was publication of Mr Gates’s new book ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need’.

Ms Hedegaard began with what she called “a confession”, which really seemed more like a cynical take on Mr Gates’s sudden interest in climate change. She said, “For years, I thought you were not particularly interested in climate change. I vividly recall a closed session at Davos some years back. The discussion turned to climate, instead of other sustainability issues, and you left the room”.

“Now,” Ms Hedegaard went on, “you powerfully and emphatically make the case for urgent climate action. You start your book by describing this journey. At first, it was ‘hard to accept that as long as humans kept emitting any amount of greenhouse gases, temperatures would keep going up’. It was only after returning to a group of climate scientists ‘several times with follow-up questions’ that it eventually ‘sank in’. To what do you attribute your initial resistance, and how might your experience be applied to getting others on board?”

That was a long and pretty hard question.

Ms Hedegaard seemed almost to be accusing Mr Gates of opportunism and a particularly slimy form of greenwashing, which is to say, take any issue that’s big and make it your own.

But Mr Gates answered the question honestly, which made his Damascene conversion both believable and effective. He didn’t suggest that he was always passionate about climate change. But, he said, “the world is in a very different place today than when I started studying climate change. We know more and have established more of a consensus about the problem. But it’s still hard for many people to accept that only reducing emissions, without getting on a path to zero, isn’t enough. It’s also hard to accept how much innovation it will take to get to zero – to fundamentally remake the energy industry, the largest business in the world. In the book, I make the case that persuaded me, and I hope it persuades others. I’d urge climate advocates to keep making the case for zero and for reducing emissions in a way that puts us on that path.”

Ms Hedegaard said no more on that but throughout the interview, she kept on with pointed, insightful questions about hope and belief and our power to change how we live. I found her last question especially penetrating. “You write,” she said, “that your ‘book is about what it will take to [avoid a climate catastrophe] and why I think we can do it’. Hand on heart: Do you believe we will get our act together in time?”

Again, Mr Gates answered honestly and rather movingly. “Yes,” he said simply, “As I write at the end of the book, I’m fundamentally an optimist because I’ve seen what technology can do, and I’ve seen what people can do. What we need to do is spend the next decade getting the right policy, technology, and market structures in place so most of the world can be at zero emissions by 2050. We don’t have any time to waste”.

That’s very effective language. They should send him round to speak to the Bolsonaros of the world.