Infectious diseases like polio and malaria might be gone in 15 years because the founder of Microsoft devoted a foundation to eradicating them. Now Bill Gates has turned his attention towards our global energy crisis, which he thinks can also be fixed with better R&D. And, yes, he's going to fund it.
In an interview and video at The Atlantic, Gates talks to James Bennet about giving $US2 billion of his own money to accelerate innovation that will halt climate change. Although the upcoming Paris talks are important, it will be difficult to hold any particular country to their commitments, he notes, and the free market doesn't have the financial incentive to develop carbon-free alternatives fast enough. What the world needs is private investors to step in, he argues, and also a commitment from the US government. And yes, there's another public health precedent here:
When people viewed cancer as a problem, the U.S. government — and it's a huge favor to the world — declared a war on cancer, and now we fund all health research at about $30 billion a year, of which about $5 billion goes to cancer. We got serious and did a lot of R&D, and then we got the private sector involved in taking that R&D and building breakthrough drugs.
In energy, no government — including the U.S., which is in almost every category the big R&D funder — has really made a dramatic increase. It was increased somewhat under Carter and then cut back under Reagan, and it's now about $6 billion a year — that's the U.S. piece, which, compared with the importance to our economy in general, is too low.
Maybe the US needs to declare a "war on carbon."
While there's no real technological equivalent to this current energy challenge, Gates says history shows that scientific results can be achieved very quickly when warranted — look at the Manhattan Project, where innovation moved incredibly fast because countries were trying to beat each other to the bomb. If only we could apply that same appetite for destruction!
Gates also has some interesting thoughts on wind and photovoltaic solutions, and I highly recommend reading and watching the entire interview because it made me feel hopeful. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has not only an excellent track record but some very well-connected friends. Hopefully more philanthropists will follow their lead.