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Innovation, Not Trees. How Bill Gates Plans to Save the Planet.

[MUSIC PLAYING] (SINGING) When you walk in a room, do you have sway?

kara swisher

I’m Kara Swisher. And you’re listening to “Sway.” My guest today is Bill Gates. I’ve known him from before Microsoft was in the hot seat of an antitrust case, and he was considered the Darth Vader of tech. Since then, he’s had a bit of a rebrand. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent the last two decades combating malaria and other global diseases and has become the second largest funding source for the World Health Organization. In the current crisis, the foundation has poured over a billion dollars into Covid relief efforts, including significant contributions to vaccine development. So I wanted to catch up with Bill for his take on when this pandemic ends. And I also want to know how he looks at the new prospects of tech regulation and antitrust, and how he thinks about the new digital Sith lords, like Mark Zuckerberg — who, by the way, is a big fan of Gates. But first, we needed to nerd out on Bill’s latest focus: climate change. He’s just written a book called “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.” It starts with a disclaimer. Gates says, “The world is not exactly lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do, or who think technology can fix any problem.” It certainly is not. So I started by asking him, why should we take a billionaire with a private plane seriously when it comes to saving the environment?

bill gates

Well, I got interested in climate because as I was flying around Africa for the foundation work after the year 2000 I was seeing, you know, no electricity and wondering, how do we electrify all of Africa? And I understood, OK there’s a constraint now that we have to have zero emissions. So I started meeting with professors and talking about it. And by 2010, I’d seen that innovation was going to be key. So I gave a Ted Talk in 2010 on climate. I’m sharing my view. I put a little over $2 billion into this. If one of these companies succeeds, that just gives me more money to put into climate. I have another $2 billion that I’ll be putting over the next five years. I created TerraPower, Breakthrough Energy. So in a way, to summarize this last 15 years, we have to accelerate the innovation and work on every one of the emission categories.

kara swisher

So one of the things that you talked about, though, was the energy industry doesn’t change like tech, that software can iterate. You essentially were saying this is not an industry open to Moore’s Law or constant change which, of course, you’ve been involved in for most of your career itself.

bill gates

Yes. Software and the internet definitely give you a distorted view of how quickly things can change. It is a unique domain. Even the advance in medicine, which is a big focus of the Gates Foundation’s work in terms of saving children’s lives, primarily in developing countries, that’s been fairly rapid: new vaccines that have cut that death rate in half. Here with energy, you’re coming up with a product that’s no better. The only feature is that it doesn’t emit CO2. And the cost is much higher. At first, the reliability won’t be as good. And so it’s nothing like the speed or the sort of market-driven approach that works for software or even for medicine in rich countries.

kara swisher

So how do you then deal with that? Because one of the things you talked about in your book very clearly, among all the other things, and we’re going to get into some of the innovations possible in a second, but getting to zero greenhouse gas emissions. Why does it have to be zero, which can feel overwhelming? Why not just directionally head to lesser or fewer emissions?

bill gates

Well, it’s the sum of all the greenhouse gas emissions that determines how much warmer the planet gets. And so we are getting warmer very, very fast. If we were getting warmer over thousands of years or millions of years like normally happens in geological history, then species can evolve because those are, per year, minor changes. Here, the CO2 content in the atmosphere is shooting up literally over just decades. And so that causes this huge increase in temperature. And so the weather changes. The trees burn down. The natural ecosystems go away. The subsistence farmers can’t grow enough food. So because the CO2 stays up for thousands of years, you just sum up all those emissions to see how bad it’s going to get. So zero means that you finally get to the point where the temperature’s not going up.

kara swisher

So you want to set this as a zero target by 2050? And you actually— you think setting reduction goals for 2030 is counterproductive. Why is that?

bill gates

No, having near term goals is very important. But if that’s all you focus on, then you’ll only work on the easy stuff, like passenger cars — which Tesla and others have done great work there. That we can see eventually that the extra cost, what I call the green premium, will be very low. But we’re basically not doing enough on the hard stuff: steel, cement, meat. And sadly, the things people think about — the electricity, passenger cars — are a third of the problem. So we have to work on the two thirds. And if all you pay attention to is those short-term metrics, not the green premiums across the board, then you miss out on what is the longest lead time, which is the hard stuff.

kara swisher

The hard stuff, OK. So explain the green premium for people who don’t know what that is, which you discuss in the book.

bill gates

Yeah, so when I go out to the aviation fuel companies and I say “I want to fly with no emissions,” there’s essentially no market there. Because that fuel has a 300 percent green premium. That is, it’s three times more expensive than normal aviation fuel. And when you fly, the cost of fuel is actually pretty meaningful, about 30 percent of the cost. And so, of course, an airline can’t just raise their prices unless everyone’s doing that. And so we have to bootstrap demand. Now some things don’t have a huge green premium. An electric car, if you factor in giving up some range and the recharge time, you know, the green premium there, you know, it’s 10 percent or 15 percent. We have a tax credit that helps with that. We have companies like QuantumScape that are making better batteries, many such companies. Although some have failed, enough are succeeding that, in the next 10 or 15 years, the green premium for a passenger car, that green premium will be zero. Whereas for ground beef or jet fuel, cement, the green premium is super high today.

kara swisher

Which is the same thing with solar for many years, it was the idea that it was too expensive without government intervention essentially.

bill gates

Yeah and so countries like Germany and Japan that bought it when it was very expensive built up the volume. And in that case, the volume led to the improvements. So now the cost is amazingly low. It’s still — it’s intermittent. So it’s not a perfect substitute. But it’s a key part of the solution.

kara swisher

Absolutely. So you also don’t spend too much time talking about reducing consumption. Isn’t it a problem where people in the developed world they use way too much energy, use the bulk of it?

bill gates

Well, in the United States you could argue that people should use less. Sadly, in a way, just cutting something in half doesn’t get it to zero. And if you take the world as a whole, many places deserve basic heating, cooling, lights at night, basic transport. So the world as a whole will not use less electricity. We won’t use less steel. It would help, and it’d be good, for the rich world to use a bit less. But the path to zero involves generating electricity with no emissions. And then, at that point, assuming you can build up the scale, having reduced the units used is not what gets you to that magic number.

kara swisher

So it doesn’t really — we’re going to consume it one way or the other is essentially what you’re saying. It’s like, why even bother somewhere where it’s not going to help?

bill gates

That’s a little strong.

kara swisher

OK.

bill gates

The primary thing has to be multiplying by zero. In the meantime, getting the units down allows us to get there faster and it reduces some emissions. But the primary plan has to be multiplying by zero.

kara swisher

So one of the things is your anti-poverty work makes you look at these problems differently than an environmentalist might. For you, people rising out of poverty and building and using more stuff is a good thing. Are those two goals — anti-poverty and net zero — in conflict?

bill gates

Well, if you were just trying to reduce by like 20 percent and say, “OK we can’t travel as much and eat as much, our homes, our cars have to be smaller,” you could get to 20 percent. So 20 percent could be done without breakthrough innovation. Sadly, that doesn’t help in a meaningful way. The temperature rise, you barely notice it on the curve. And so it’s the fact that it’s this zero is the science. That’s what means that only through innovation will you cover all those sources of emissions. The green premium today across all sectors is over $5 trillion a year. And the world just can’t brute force fund that. If we reduce the green premiums by 95 percent, then you get to $250 billion a year. And that actually you could imagine the rich countries subsidizing that for the poorer countries. So that even where there’s still emissions, you’re not holding them back. Because after all, they’re suffering the greatest consequence and they did the least to cause the problem. So on a global level, this is the number one environmental justice problem.

kara swisher

Well, they’ll bear the costs of what we already did. And they were already doing that anyway. So you also call yourself a capitalist. Isn’t the market going to sort this out? How do you get the market to take care of it?

bill gates

Well, the market will not buy green steel. It’s not stronger. It doesn’t last longer. You know, in fact, because it’s made a different way, people are really worried that maybe it’s inferior because actually the regulations are specific to the recipe for dirty steel. So unless government sets a policy that pushes volume of green steel, funds more R&D, funds more pilot projects, creates demand as well as innovative supply, we’ll never get there on steel. Because it — the buyer doesn’t see the negative effects of buying dirty steel.

kara swisher

Right or cement or things that do cause —

bill gates

Exactly.

kara swisher

— a lot more greenhouse gases than people realize. So specifically electricity, though, aren’t renewables on par?

bill gates

The cost of renewables has come down amazingly. And so the big problem with them is they’re often very distant from where you need to use the electricity. And with electricity, reliability is super important. And so if there’s a cold front over the Midwest and all that wind and solar shut down, people still want heat in their house. And so either you need some source of power that’s green and available all the time, like nuclear, or you need an incredible miracle in terms of storage of electricity at levels, you know, a hundred times what we can achieve right now.

kara swisher

You’re an advocate of nuclear power. Besides being chairman of a board of a nuclear power startup, why do you think that’s a good idea?

bill gates

Yeah, so the only reason I got involved in nuclear is because of climate. And if we get a storage miracle of some type, then we won’t have to worry about nuclear power. But there’s a very good chance we won’t have that storage miracle. And so keeping nuclear fission where the — the, you know, per molecule energy generation is a million times better than burning hydrocarbons. If we can get the safety, convince people of the safety and improve the economics, then it could be a huge contributor to the reliability and, therefore, to a solution for climate change. Now we have to start over because today’s reactors are way too expensive. And they have high pressure, so their safety systems are very complex. So it takes a whole new generation of nuclear reactor. And that’s what — there’s a number of companies. TerraPower, the one I’m involved with, just got a big U.S. government grant to build a demonstration plant.

kara swisher

Let’s go through all the different things. Your solution to the enviroment is also based on innovation and new technologies. And in a column, I predicted the world’s first trillionaire would be a green tech entrepreneur. I just made that up, Bill, I just did. [LAUGHTER] I just wanted it to be so. But I thought about it like, this is where opportunity is. So talk about each of them. I want to go through them. I’d love you each — like where they — really quickly where each of them are. Biofuels and electrofuels?

bill gates

Yeah those bear a price premium where you’re growing plants and then turning them into fuel — which, because you pull the CO2 in as the plant grows, it’s net zero emissions. Electrofuels, you have to have ridiculously cheap electricity in order to do it that way. So those two are the paths. The density of gasoline is unbelievable. It’s 20 times more dense in energy than our best battery is today. So if we can make fuels that are zero emission, that’s probably where aviation will go. Breakthrough Energy just invested in a company trying to use hydrogen to power planes, but that looks pretty tough.

kara swisher

That sounds like it would blow up. Carbon capture?

bill gates

Yeah, so there’s two kinds of carbon capture. You can go to a place like a coal plant or natural gas plant or cement plant and take the flue, the exhaust gases going up a chimney, and try to pull the CO2 out of that. The concentration there is about 15 percent. Or you can go into the atmosphere, where it’s currently 410 parts per million and pull it out there. The beauty of the second approach is that you could put your capture plant anywhere, particularly somewhere where it’s easy to liquefy it and put it into a geological formation to stay out of the atmosphere. And so the direct air capture is the one where you just grab it from the air. And then sort of carbon capture at a plant is the other approach. Both of those are super expensive today.

kara swisher

So, expensive. All right. Cell-based meat or plant-based meat? I know you’re a cheeseburger fan, Bill, I know that.

bill gates

Yeah, so this is an area we’ve made more category than I expected. Kleiner Perkins was in Beyond. I know Khosla was in Impossible. I also invested — not only through their funds, but directly in those companies. The Breakthrough Energy portfolio has new companies like Nature’s Fynd. So actually, the progress here is better than I expected. But the scale is that 99 percent of ground beef is still made by cows. And so to scale up, get the taste even better and get the cost down, there’s still a lot to be done.

kara swisher

And getting people to eat them, like a lot.

bill gates

Yeah, although, when they came out with Beyond and Impossible in trial markets, the demand was a lot higher than was expected.

kara swisher

Yeah, do you eat them? Do you still eat regular burgers?

bill gates

I mix. I sometimes eat the real thing still.

kara swisher

All right. Offshore winds?

bill gates

Offshore wind still sells at a premium. But we need to drive the demand there. The UK is doing a lot with that. It’s very valuable because if you put it out of sight offshore, for example, on the East Coast of the United States, it’s nearer to the places we need electricity than wind coming out of the Midwest. So it’s very important that we try and drive the price premium of offshore wind down.

kara swisher

OK. Planting trees? You were sort of down on planting trees.

bill gates

Well, the problem is that if you have a place that magically has wonderful soil and wonderful moisture, nature actually knows how to plant trees. There’s these seed things that fly around. So if you have to remediate the soil, then it’s completely non-economic. The trees last, particularly the fast-growing trees, for 30 or 40 years. And so if you’re going to fund for 10,000 years constantly replanting it, then that’s a legitimate offset. If you’re just planting one generation of trees, it doesn’t get you much. You know, I’m not saying it’s a mistake or anything. But that will not make a significant dent in this problem. The idea that there’s a place to plant a trillion trees, that’s just wrong.

kara swisher

That’s just wrong. OK. So you’re against trees, Bill. No [LAUGHS] I’m kidding.

bill gates

No, no, no —

kara swisher

[LAUGHS] I’m kidding. I’m teasing.

bill gates

I’m a tree hugger.

kara swisher

OK. [LAUGHS] You’re a tree hugger? That’s not how I envision you. So what about the companies moving in here, Microsoft certainly and has a fund. Amazon has a $2 billion fund. A lot of people feel like this is greenwashing. Is it that? Or is there real commitment on the part of corporations from your perspective to really — because corporations can make changes that are very significant. In lots of areas, they have.

bill gates

The work these companies are doing on climate is super important. Now the bar for what they do will go up over time, you know, what they’ll be measured against. So for example, for the electricity in your data centers, today you can just buy a certificate and say, OK, I get the green electrons. But really, on the grid, there’s still a lot of non-green electrons. To really make sure that your data center’s only using green electrons is a very hard thing. But Google, Microsoft, Amazon are all pushing towards that — which will be a huge milestone. So I applaud even the offset work they’re doing because it is contributing. The quality of those offsets and the way we measure those — the field’s going to get smarter and smarter. So hopefully, instead of paying the $400 a ton, which is what I paid for offsets, we can get that down below $100 for the highest quality offset and then make sure that the lower cost offsets are also improving. The best thing to do with this is to make it catalytic, that is get these companies not just to do force offsets but get them to be customers for green cement, green steel so you get the learning curve like we got with solar and wind —

kara swisher

So that they’re using them.

bill gates

Exactly. So to be the pioneering customers, like Japan and Germany were for solar, that’s what I call catalyst — where it’s not just supplying innovation but it’s also demand for the innovative products, even though their only feature is their greenness.

kara swisher

One of the things that’s interesting is some of the people of your level of wealth are doing things like trying to get off the planet. Jeff Bezos, obviously, just sort of retired, I think. He has more time to compete with Elon Musk in their space wars. I’m curious, why have you never gotten into that idea of, like, our solution is to move to space? And why do the two wealthiest people in the planet want to get off of it, do you think?

bill gates

Well, it’s important to say that what Elon did with Tesla is one of the greatest contributions to climate change anyone’s ever made. And you know, underestimating Elon is not a good idea. No, I’m not a Mars person. I know a lot of Mars people. But, you know, I’m not subject to that. Likewise, Jeff Bezos has made a commitment that’s even larger than what I’ve spent. And so I’m talking to him a lot about what is he going to do on his own, what could we do together. Amazon, because they move goods of all type, their so-called Scope 3 emissions would be very large. So getting them involved, you know, whether it’s their transport or their venture funding — Microsoft, I’m super pleased with it, it’s leading the way in some of these aspects. So, you know, I don’t think the rockets are the solution. But maybe I’m missing something there.

kara swisher

Yeah, would you ever get in one and go?

bill gates

You know, I’m not going to pay a lot of money because my foundation can buy measles vaccines and save a life for $1,000. So anything I do, I always think, OK, I could spend that $1,000 buying measles vaccine.

kara swisher

OK, fair point. All right, some of the critique you and Silicon Valley have gotten from the academic community is your focus on technology pulls the focus and pressure off policy change. How do you respond to that? And what do you — what policies, if you had to pick two policies the government needs to put in place to make net zero a real possibility, what would that be?

bill gates

Well, what’s stunning is that up until 2015, rich countries had not increased their energy R&D budgets. And so together with some other leaders, we got that on to the Paris agenda. There was a commitment to double in five years. Now some countries including the U.S. didn’t achieve that. But, you know, that’s the first thing is the government is where R&D — basic R&D — gets done, like we do at the NIH in health. And we should spend the same amount of R&D on climate that we spend on health. The second thing is that the demand policies, you know — which are either tax credit or buy green — the government is absolutely critical there, whether it’s like zero emission vehicles that California did or mileage requirements that the federal government’s going to get back in the business of pushing those. Because, no, innovation alone isn’t going to do the job here. So, you know, this is one where like my foundation work, I’ll be talking with government leaders a lot. The catalyst thing we need government partners for. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, hit Subscribe. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Mark Cuban. And you’ll get new ones as soon as they come out. More with Bill Gates after the break. [MUSIC PLAYING]

It’s interesting. At the end of your book, it says, “It might seem ironic that I’m calling for more government intervention. When I was building Microsoft, I kept my distance from policymakers in Washington, D.C. and around the world, thinking they’d only keep us from doing our best work. In part, the U.S. government’s antitrust suit against Microsoft in late 1990s made me realize that we should have been engaged with policymakers all along,” which I can’t believe I read those words from you. Because I recall when you came to The Washington Post — it was probably more than 20 years ago — where I asked you a question about that. And you said, I don’t know, maybe we have a lobby firm. You didn’t seem to be interested in Washington whatsoever. This antitrust case that you were referring to about 20 years ago — and now regulators are looking at Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google — what do you think the government got wrong about regulating Microsoft? And what is the effect of the case and its fallout on you, would you say?

bill gates

It was a distraction for the company. Maybe Windows Mobile would be what Android is today if I hadn’t been distracted or I’d done a better job. But, you know, Microsoft survived. Microsoft is doing super well. I think in the future, as the government looks at technology companies, it won’t just be antitrust. I mean, the tech companies are more important today in terms of how people communicate or promote themselves as a politician. The challenge for the tech industry is our dreams have come true. We are at the center of so much that now almost everything the government thinks about, making sure that the technology pieces are connected up, is important. You know, Microsoft was not the newspaper of the day. You could type into Word. But we didn’t affect what you typed.

kara swisher

One of the people that’s been most focused on is Mark Zuckerberg. And he told me you were — I said who was someone you admire, and who would you consider a mentor? He said you. Do you see yourself as that? And if so, what advice would you provide to him?

bill gates

You know, I think Mark’s a very good person. And he and I do get to talk a lot. I don’t envy him. Because the challenge of how you get the good stuff out of social networks and reduce the bad stuff — like crazy conspiracy theories, or falsehoods, or people just falling into extreme views where they find other people digitally that they wouldn’t without that tool — that how you draw that line, we are not smart about that. And unlike things like telehealth or online education, where I’m very involved in backing new ideas, that one I’m more of an observer. I did advise Mark to have the advisory board that he probably would have done it without me. But they just came down with some real insight. You know, that’s not a complete solution. But I think it’s great that he did that to show it’s not him wrestling with some of these trade-offs.

kara swisher

Probably not trade-offs you’d like to make, or anybody. I don’t know if anybody can actually —

bill gates

Very hard, you know.

kara swisher

In that vein, you’ve been the target of a lot of conspiracy theories. It sort of was sort of surprising to me. You sort of moved aside George Soros on Covid. That you caused the pandemic. That you’re putting microchips in vaccines. I was reading a whole bunch of them. It was fascinating. I know you’ve talked a lot in the past couple of months about Covid but I think I’d love to get your ideas of where we are right now at this point — besides you being attacked, I assume that you just try to ignore that.

bill gates

You know, the misinformation could hold us back. It certainly reduced mask wearing. And it might affect people’s willingness to take vaccines. The good news is that even with these variants, the rich countries, by the end of this year, should be able to achieve vaccination levels, including probably a slight change to the vaccine to target the variance. But this thing should be over in rich countries by the end of the year. And if we care about equity and don’t want the disease coming back, we’ll also help the developing countries. That’s an area The Gates Foundation has been very involved in, like setting up factories in India that are dedicated to making these vaccines for developing countries. So, you know, we’re going to have another tough two or three months, although the numbers will come down somewhat. The seasonal effect will be in our favor. Because I’m 65, I’ve already had my first dose. I’m — the only time I’ve ever been glad to be so old.

kara swisher

[LAUGHS] Me, too. Not yet for me, but yeah.

bill gates

And, you know, meanwhile people are impatient and making the right trade-offs about, OK, can we put school in, which, in most cases, we should be able to do that. This is — it’s been a disaster more for the poor countries then for the rich countries.

kara swisher

But it’s been a disaster here, too, I would say —

bill gates

Absolutely.

kara swisher

If you were running a post product meeting on the launch of a vaccine product, what needs to change in order to — right now, I was talking to someone. I was trying to get my mom, she’s 85, to get a vaccine. It was really hard. I don’t want to jump lines, obviously. And it was sort of like, it shouldn’t be like trying to get your kid a Playstation or something. It just — this distribution seems beyond screwed up. What would you do in a product meeting, if you were Bill Gates running a product meeting here?

bill gates

Well, there should be a C.D.C. website that is federally run — and the government chose not to do that — where you would enter your information, like your age and comorbidities and your work and your availability and your location, and it would direct you to where you go to get the vaccine. And ideally that’s done without any paperwork. Now you need a phone center for people who don’t have internet connections or aren’t comfortable with that. But Israel, you know, they did it right. Microsoft worked with the UK on the backend software and that’s actually gone quite well. So the logistics in the next month or two is that some very good Biden people come into this and states look at the states or countries that did it well. The logistics won’t be limiting. It will be either supply limited or demand limited. You know, the J&J vaccine, it’s single dose. It’s particularly good against severe disease. It still has some significant efficacy against the South African variant or even the variant of the UK variant. So, thank God, we have J&J coming into the arsenal to complement Pfizer and Moderna. And then in the right way, we’ll will target AstraZeneca and then we’ll have Novavax. And those five, at least in terms of U.S. F.D.A. approval, will be pretty much the whole game.

kara swisher

Would you blame the Trump administration? You were very quiet, even though it was — every now and then you sort of spoke up about the World Health Organization and some others. How much blame do you put on for — how much of a disaster? You said, this was a disaster. That’s sort of a passive voice. Why was it a disaster?

bill gates

Well, because the U.S. government did a very bad job. And things that are exponential phenomena, just a little bit of incompetence at the beginning drives numbers that make Australia and other countries that did it right, like South Korea — it’s utterly a different situation in the United States. And the United States has the C.D.C. We have more PCR machines than anybody. We have more sequencing machines than anybody. So in every other infectious disease event, the U.S. C.D.C. led the way. In this case, they actually made a few mistakes. The diagnostic should have gone to the commercial sector immediately with quick approvals. That was completely botched. The travel bans, that was completely botched. So as we do the post-mortem, the number of mistakes in the U.S. — basically if you go onto the internet and try to find the nuttiest person and put him on to your task force, that’s not a good form of governance. And then they all got unhappy with each other, you know. So it’s a tragedy that we had that administration for this epidemic.

kara swisher

Do you know why? Did you ever contact them and say, what are you doing? I’m Bill Gates or —

bill gates

All the time.

kara swisher

And?

bill gates

There were things like proving that you didn’t need to jam the swab into your brain in order to gather a sample. We very quickly proved that out. We, with our Seattle flu study, were the first to detect community spread and showed that it had gone beyond people who had a connection to the travel. So there were a lot of things, including getting this vaccine going and because we can give out money very quickly for diagnostics. And it’s clear what we need to do to be ready for the next pandemic and now that we have the Biden administration, we can work with them to really bring this one to an end as fast as possible on a global basis and to really set the agenda for what does preparedness look like. So maybe someday I’ll give a Ted Talk which is, we are prepared for the next pandemic, which is the opposite of what I said in 2015.

kara swisher

Are we, right now?

bill gates

No, no, no, we’re not — no. We’re five years and brilliant thinking and tens of billions short on doing the disease games and having the epidemiologist core of 3,000 that’s available to work on the stuff immediately. What I wrote in 2015 in detail in the New England Journal of Medicine I would update somewhat. But about 70 percent of what we need to do is already there. Now we have things like mRNA. We have these high scale PCR. We have a lot of tools so that some of the specifics have changed.

kara swisher

And will it be more equitable? Because going through this, the Gates Foundation organization and funds have incentivized big drug makers, letting them hold patents and reap the profits. Why not use the crisis to create a more equitable system of developing vaccines? There was push back in India and other places.

bill gates

Well, making vaccines is very, very hard. A highly regulated vaccine involves hundreds of inspections that you’re following what’s called GMP, good manufacturing practice. And people like vaccines to be safe. And so the notion that you’re not going to open source vaccine manufacturers. There’s not a single additional vaccine that would have come out of that. We did fund the biggest vaccine factories in the world, which happened to be in India, to take and make the same vaccine. So AstraZeneca is being made in the Serum factory, funded by Gates Foundation — likewise Novavax and Serum, Johnson & Johnson and Bio E. So getting those factories going — believe me, IP did not limit anything that was being done here. There are cases where IP can stand in the way. It’s a super complicated topic. The companies now often do tiered pricing. But I’d give pharma a very high grade for how they cooperated with each other and how they built up capacity here. And no free IP would have improved anything related to this pandemic.

kara swisher

So my last question, your father, Bill, Sr., who I met — amazing man — passed away this past September. You talked a little bit about not being able to be with him as much during that time. Has the pandemic — you’ve had a lot of life changes. This has been a really wrenching time for a lot of people. Has it changed your life, your outlook?

bill gates

Well, I’m certainly among the least hurt by the pandemic, in the sense that I have great internet connections. The kids are home more. But, you know, there’s enough room for them and enough bandwidth for them. I have a job that, to my surprise, I’ve met with more African leaders virtually than I ever did physically. And so the work has been surprisingly unaffected. If you have high school or college-age kids, the fact that they’re around more — they may not have chosen that, but for parents, you know, this has been kind of a neat year that’s pulled us together. And, you know, it does make you think, OK, did I travel too much? How often do I need to go into the office? It has me and a lot of people rethinking things. It’s just sad in a way that the negative effects mostly were along every dimension of inequity — the fact that Hispanics and Blacks were infected more and got sick more, the fact that the inner city is where the online learning really did not take place. This year has made me step back.

kara swisher

Do you consider yourself a reflective person? Do you — a lot of people are reflecting. The pandemic has caused a lot of reflection of change.

bill gates

Well I may reflect more about numeric things. I — it’s not like I took up yoga or something. [LAUGHTER] But I love stepping back. You know, I used to do think weeks to kind of force that, so that, particularly when you’re a CEO, finding time to reflect is very difficult. Many of the things that I believe in, like avoiding the decimation of climate change, or the health work we do, we just need to do more. You know, it’s the right priority. It’s the right team. But boy, the inequity piece and the parts that I wouldn’t have anticipated, the racial inequity, we had the George Floyd wake-up call right in the middle of this. And sort of the extreme nature of the Trump administration’s not thinking about long term things or having the right team to do the work. I mean, you know, thank goodness we’re going into this year with an administration that wants to cooperate with the rest of the world and has good scientists, like Eric Lander, coming in to strong roles and, you know, clearly prioritizes climate in a very strong way. And the vaccines are coming. So we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

kara swisher

Are you worried at all with climate change if another administration, like the Trump administration, comes in and shifts again?

bill gates

Yes. The U.S. is the country where climate is particularly partisan. And so if young people, including young Republicans, are saying that they care about climate, there ought to be some of the parts of this plan, you know, R&D, smart regulations that become bipartisan. Without that, the U.S. could be on such a start-and-stop thing that the kind of massive capital investments in new electricity plants and industrial plants that we need, business won’t see the certainty over these decades to go and make those trillions of dollars of investments. And so we have to think about being bipartisan here. We have people in one party who thinks this is easy to solve. We have to help educate them on that. We have some people who think it’s not important. We have to educate on that. So I’m hopeful that we get a constancy, like a lot of the key elements of U.S. foreign policy have allowed us to be such a strong presence in the world up until the last four years.

kara swisher

Is it realistic, given the partisanship right now?

bill gates

I think it’d be cynical to say it’s not. Everybody cares about these issues. We have the innovation power. And it’s up to the U.S. as the country with the majority of all the innovation power not just to reduce our emissions, but to drive the innovations. I see people in both parties who care about this issue.

kara swisher

And you’re hopeful, then?

bill gates

Yeah, yeah, I’m hopeful. I mean partly I’m a hopeful person in general. And partly to do the work, you have to feel like there’s a strong chance of success. So, you know, I’m not just some neutral observer ranking the success. I’m out on the field doing my best.

kara swisher

And 2050, neither of us is going to be around Bill. I hate to say that. [LAUGHS] But we’re not.

bill gates

Oh, we might be. We might be.

kara swisher

Oh no, that’s another discussion.

bill gates

I hope so.

kara swisher

Who’s going, you? [LAUGHS] Not me. I think maybe —

bill gates

Now that, it’s close. You know, medicine keeps getting better. I’m not a longevity, you know, I’m not investing in longevity stuff. So you’re right. It’s weird to be working on something that I may not see the final chapter.

kara swisher

Well, that’s why you plant trees, Bill. I don’t know if you know that. That’s the whole thing, you plant trees [LAUGHTER] but you’re not going to see them grow.

bill gates

Not yet.

kara swisher

Anyway, I really appreciate this. This is a really, quite a good book. I really enjoyed reading it.

bill gates

Oh, thanks. Yeah, great to talk to you.

kara swisher

OK, great. Bill, thanks.

bill gates

Super, talk to you later. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Sway is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Matt Frassica, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, and Vishakha Darbha, edited by Paula Szuchman, with original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Erick Gomez, and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair and Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Liriel Higa. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to subscribe to a podcast. So subscribe to this one. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of Sway delivered to you like a fresh bolt of clean energy, download your favorite podcast app then search for Sway and subscribe. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening. [MUSIC PLAYING]