Bill Gates: ‘Republicans for climate change action are gold’

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Bill Gates, Founder of Breakthrough Energy and Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks onstage at The New York Times Climate Forward Summit 2023 at The Times Center on September 21, 2023 in New York City.

Bennett Raglin | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

“Republicans for climate change action are gold,” said Bill Gates, the billionaire climate philanthropist and investor, on Thursday at the Climate Forward event in New York City.

The number of Republicans convinced that responding to climate change is a priority has “got to be a number that we manage to increase over time,” Gates said.

That’s because climate change mitigation and adaptation will require sustained investment and support from the public and private sector, Gates said.

The Inflation Reduction Act, which was packed full of tax credits to drive the development of the clean energy economy, was passed entirely along party lines in both the House and Senate. No Republicans voted for it.

The political divide on Capitol Hill mirrors that of the general public.

More than half, 54%, of Americans consider climate change a “major threat” to the well-being of the United States, but that is starkly divided by party lines, according to survey data from the Pew Research Center. Almost eight in ten Democrats, 78%, consider climate change a major threat, up from 58% ten years ago. Only 23% of Republicans consider climate change a major threat, almost equivalent to the 22% of Republicans who considered climate change a major threat a decade ago. The most recent survey for this data was conducted in March 2022.

The IRA included tax credits designed to kickstart the development of clean hydrogen, long-duration energy storage, and technologies to capture and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, to name a few.

“The IRA is a very dramatic set of money to bootstrap key technologies, including into areas that most climate people don’t talk about,” Gates said, like, for example, industrial processes. “Industrial emissions, if you don’t solve that, the whole thing doesn’t get solved,” Gates said.

“It’s a fantastic climate bill,” Gates said.

But the longevity of the IRA and those tax credits depends on whichever party rules Washington D.C.

“We don’t have that much time to keep this thing intact,” Gates said. “It’s not guaranteed that tax credits necessarily last out the full 10 years, because they can be repealed if you get a change in political control.”

That’s a problem because building and scaling hard technology involving heavy equipment, manufacturing, and infrastructure-scale solutions takes time — much longer than a single administration’s tour through Washington D.C.

“These are 30-year investments in steel factories, fertilizer factories, and new ways of making meat,” Gates said. “It requires a constant, full-speed-ahead in order for the U.S. to be an exemplar.”

While Gates emphasized the importance of getting Republicans to take climate policy seriously, he also said he doesn’t like to demonize them.

Instead, Gates asks the question: “Why have we failed to bring more people along? And this is a super important thing,” he said.

When Gates interacts with philanthropists who are investing in climate, he encourages those who have relationships with Republicans to work with them to try to increase their commitment to climate. “I think that’s extremely valuable,” he said.

The United States’ ability to sustain its investment in climate technology will have global implications.

While the majority of global emissions come from middle-income countries, the United States and other wealthy nations have to lead the way in developing and bringing down the cost of new technologies, Gates said.

Clean technologies have to be better and cheaper because that’s the only realistic way to see them scale in less wealthy countries, according to Gates. It’s also unrealistic to expect rich countries to pay for the distribution of clean technologies in less wealthy countries unless they’re better and cheaper than the dirty, legacy way of operating. The political will isn’t there.

“Sadly if you try to subsidize it, you are at many multiples of what the foreign aid budget is,” Gates said. “The voters aren’t going to come up with that. So innovation is the only way you can achieve these goals.”

At this point, the question is not whether the globe will overshoot the goal target established by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, but by how much.

“We are not on a path to get to a 1.5 degree limitation,” Gates said. And indeed, António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, earlier in the week said the planet is right now,heading towards a 2.8 degree temperature rise, or more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

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