On the momentous day of January 6, as a huge mob of rabid Donald Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, spurred on by a rogue president set on whipping up mayhem on his way out of Washington, Bill Gates was sitting quietly at home in Seattle, glued to his television. “Weirdly, I was actually pretty free that day,” recalls the co-founder of Microsoft and billionaire philanthropist, leaning forward over a pristine white desk, dressed in his trademark light woollen jumper, button-up shirt and rectangular glasses. “I watched the Trump speech and the events at the Capitol; the next thing I knew it was past midnight because I’d waited for the confirmation of the electoral votes. Fourteen hours of TV-watching was a record for me; a day of mostly lows, although the ending was positive.”
Did he break out the bubbly in the wee hours when Congress voted overwhelmingly to confirm Joe Biden’s presidential victory? “No, everybody had gone to bed, so it was just me. I don’t drink champagne on my own. I sent emails to a whole ton of people.”
Gates has a particularly personal connection with America’s citadel of democracy. Back in 1971, nearly five decades before it would be invaded by an army of rioters driven by false claims of vote-rigging, this tousle-haired 16-year-old boy was rushing up and down its polished corridors, breaking a sweat. “I was a messenger boy during my summer break,” he tells Good Weekend, smiling at the memory.
“So I know the Capitol really well: by delivering messages you get to know all the stairwells, elevators and passages. Seeing those unbelievable events take place there – it was pretty vivid.“
Which made Gates suspect, given how easily the rioters wound their way through the byzantine hallways of the building, that it involved a degree of planning. “In the days afterwards, news organisations did an amazing job of piecing together video of the insurrection – or the attack on the Capitol, whatever words you want to use – so I became way more knowledgeable about some of its horrific elements.”
There is horror, and there is luck, and Gates agrees it could have been a whole lot worse if the house chamber hadn’t been swiftly evacuated as the rioters attempted to breach its doors. But the assault, from the moment Trump told his supporters to “walk down to the Capitol”, was also dolefully symbolic, because this glistening, white, neo-classical pile has long represented a larger vision of America, one that looks outwards, not inwards. While Trump’s lawyers in his second impeachment trial claimed his “fight like hell” speech was not an incitement to riot, Gates’s wife Melinda didn’t mince words in a speech last month: “I think we need to reckon with the fact that this president incited this mob. That is not us as an American people. That is not us as a democracy.”
Up close, under the unflattering blue tinge of a computer screen – we’re chatting by video link – Gates looks every inch his 65 years, his face comfortably crumpled in a road map of lines and age spots. But as he warms to a topic, as his hands move about animatedly and his eyes sparkle, glimmers of the teen geek who dissected code at Seattle’s private Lakeside School and built computers in his garage remain visible. Perched on a shelf behind him, above an exquisite wooden chess set, is his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.
Gates has a brisk, naturally propulsive way of speaking (“If you want to understand the damage climate change will do, take the disruption of COVID-19 and spread it over a much longer time frame”). Twenty years ago, Gates would never have predicted he’d be speaking publicly about climate change. “I certainly wasn’t looking for a new cause,” he writes in the book’s introduction.
Although the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, regarded as the world’s largest private philanthropic foundation, was established back in 2000, it was actually a follow-on from earlier foundations and charities managed by Gates’s father, William H. Gates snr, and by Bill and Melinda themselves, who were married in 1994. (Collectively, the foundations have to date paid more than $US54 billion in grants.) Trips to developing countries in Africa by the couple helped to deepen the foundation’s work in fighting malaria, HIV/AIDS and polio, and to improve sanitation and health care for women. Gates, who stepped down from Microsoft in 2008, has long said that foreign aid makes the US safe, by stabilising vulnerable parts of the globe and yes, preventing the spread of disease around the world.
The pivot to climate change presents his biggest challenge to date. He was mobilised by a series of meetings in 2006 with climate scientists and former Microsoft executives who were funding R&D into renewable energy sources. Since then, he has outlaid more than $US1 billion on clean-energy projects, including low-emissions cement, steel, meat and more around the world. “We have no time to lose,” he says, warning that even rich countries like the US and Australia may find themselves becoming net importers of food by the end of this century as their prime agricultural land becomes drier and drier.
Gates was especially gratified by Joe Biden’s opening salvo of executive orders, signed in the Oval Office immediately following his presidential inauguration: including re-joining the World Health Organisation and the Paris climate agreement, and revoking a permit for the Keystone XL gas pipeline from Canada to the US. In a major policy reversal of the Trump administration, which according to Columbia Law School had rolled back more than 100 environmental protections, Biden vowed to move swiftly on climate change, including launching a $US2 trillion economic plan to propel the transition to clean energy sources. “Biden has assembled a really good team of experts and scientists,” notes Gates, “including making [former secretary of state] John Kerry the Special Presidential Envoy on Climate.”
Can the new president also go some way towards bridging the great divide that has busted open American society? If anyone has a feel for building consensus, it’s Biden, according to Gates. “I’ve known Joe since long before he ran for president,” he tells me. “I worked with him when he was a senator and as a vice-president, and he’s a great listener and negotiator, a thoroughly decent man. Melinda and I haven’t been with him physically since he was elected, but we had a great phone call where the two main topics were the pandemic and climate change. I’m excited about the team he’s picked to tackle the health and climate crisis.”
It would be a feeble understatement to say that Bill and Melinda Gates were dismayed by the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which as we go to press has infected more than 27 million Americans and killed nearly 468,000, approximately double the toll of India, a country of 1.38 billion people compared with 330 million in the US. Furious might be a better word to describe their reaction. Only months before COVID started infecting people in Wuhan, the Trump administration ended a $US200 million early-warning program set up to alert the federal government to potential pandemics.
In a hauntingly prophetic TED Talk back in April 2015 that has now received more than 33 million page views on YouTube, Gates warned that the world wasn’t prepared for another outbreak after the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic, which claimed more than 11,000 lives in Africa. “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war,” he announced while striding the stage, at one point pausing beneath a slide of the 1918-20 Spanish flu. “We need to do simulations of germ games rather than war games.”
Gates says his The Next Outbreak? We’re not Ready TED Talk was less a prophecy than an affirmation of the public-health warnings scientists had been issuing since the early 2000s. The mainstream media, notably Time magazine (for which Gates has been a frequent profile subject and contributor), had flagged the increasing risk of a global pandemic through its coverage of the epidemics of SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, swine flu and bird flu.
But even Gates admits to having initially underestimated the scale of COVID, writing in his blog last year: “Even though our foundation had been concerned about a pandemic for a long time – especially after the Ebola epidemic in West Africa – we were shocked by how drastically COVID-19 ravaged economies, education, around the world.”
Gates is admiring of Australasia’s extraordinary success in combating the spread of the virus, partly a consequence of our good luck (geographical isolation and low population density) but also smart government policies (swiftly introduced strict lockdown measures, the closure of national and state borders, sturdy if not foolproof quarantine measures). “Most of my conversations with Australian politicians have been about health policy and they’ve been positive,” says Gates, who has come to our shores multiple times for work and pleasure. He’s currently keen to see the Pilbara’s iron-ore mines, believing Australia is missing out on the potential to value-add to our iron ore via – you guessed it – clean energy.
How would he rate, on a scale of one to 10, the Trump administration’s handling of COVID-19? “Probably a two,” he replies thoughtfully. “A clear message of leadership and a faster reaction to diagnostics would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The reason I’m giving it a two and not a one is because the US government quickly got $US10 billion to vaccine manufacturers.”
Bill Gates’s consciousness of climate change was initially raised through the problem of energy poverty, which he knows a lot about through his foundation’s work fighting malaria, AIDS and Ebola in Africa. Nearly 1.6 billion people around the world have no electricity, and a third of the world’s population cook their food and keep warm by burning biomass such as wood, crop waste and dung.
“It’s hard to be productive if you don’t have lights to read by,” he writes in his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.
Gates has never been a radical environmentalist, expecting the world’s poorest countries to stunt their economic growth – and living standards – to reduce carbon emissions. “We can’t tell the poorest billion people in the world that they can’t escape extreme poverty,” he says. “The world needs to provide more energy so the poorest can thrive, but we need to provide that energy without releasing any more greenhouse gases.”
“The world needs to provide more energy so the poorest can thrive, but we need to provide that energy without releasing any more greenhouse gases.”
The solution, he says, is to make clean energy sources such as wind and solar so cheap that every country will choose it over climate-warming fossil fuels. In 2015, Gates and a coalition of private investors set up Breakthrough Energy, which researches new technologies and enhancements that can lead to net-zero emissions. Gates is counting on a new generation of entrepreneurs who will drive economic growth through clean energy, regardless of climate-change deniers holding on for dear life in government. This is not pie-in-the-sky fantasy, he insists, and the figures back him up. In 2019, for the first time, renewable energy consumption surpassed coal consumption in the US, despite all the incentives the Trump administration introduced for the fossil fuel industry.
But even multi-billionaire philanthropists with the best intentions can only do so much. In his book, Gates writes that it is up to governments to design policies that “drive research out of the lab and into the market”. In 2018 he told Time magazine: “The big money is with government. It’s over 10 times bigger than all philanthropic things put together.”
I mention to Gates the studies showing how one of the prime contributors to climate change – unprecedented deforestation – is increasing the odds animals will pass on disease to humans by exposing more people to the novel pathogens contained in wildlife habitats. Last year, Gates’s good friend Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious diseases expert, and co-author David Morens warned in the journal Cell that we “have reached a tipping point that forecasts an inevitability of an acceleration of disease emergencies”. Another study published last year found that virus “spillover” events from animals to humans have been tripling every decade since 1980.
“Future frequency is a top question,” Gates tells me. “A lot of risk is coming out of Africa, where population growth is resulting in destruction of habitat and various species mixing in dangerous ways, and China, where the wet markets also mix different species. The mortality of coronavirus is 1 per cent; with the common form of smallpox it was 30 per cent, so it could have been a lot worse. There will be another one.”
“The mortality of coronavirus is 1 per cent; with the common form of smallpox it was 30 per cent, so it could have been a lot worse. There will be another one.”
Perhaps more revealing than Gates’s 2015 Ted Talk about future pandemics was one delivered five years earlier, which has drawn far less attention. In Innovating to Zero, Gates says how, if he were granted one of three wishes for the next 50 years – to be able to pick a president, a vaccine or an energy technology with zero CO2 emissions at half the cost of fossil fuels – he’d opt for the latter. “This is the wish with the greatest impact,” he says, “because it may determine our survival as a species. Until we get to near zero, the temperature will continue to rise.”
Some energy experts claim Gates is pinning far too much faith on breakthroughs in energy technology in the fight against climate change. Only 25 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases, for example, comes from electricity. But Gates would be the first to admit we’ll be using fossil fuels for decades to come. “In a zero carbon future, we’ll still be producing greenhouse gases, but have the ability to remove the carbon they produce.”
Gates is fond of saying that he thinks “more like an engineer than a political scientist”. He won’t be drawn on whether he’s discussed climate change with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, nor the net zero emissions issue, a current political football in Canberra. “Australia is one of the few developed countries that has yet to embrace net zero emissions by 2050,” he laments. “I’m hoping it will get to that point, increase its R&D budget and become involved in global collaborations.”
“Australia is one of the few developed countries that has yet to embrace net zero emissions by 2050. I’m hoping it will get to that point.”
Even if political leaders are wary of spearheading change, private enterprise and the general public can move ahead without them, I suggest, pointing to the huge take-up of rooftop solar panels in Australian homes. “In terms of renewable energy, Australia is in a fantastic position,” Gates enthuses – and not just through solar and wind, he says, pointing to clean hydrogen as a potential future energy source.
Late last month, Gates received his first jab against COVID-19. He is ticked off about the conspiracy theories and junk science being disseminated by anti-vaxxers. “This is a really bad time to be spreading misinformation,” says Gates. Three of the most ridiculous conspiracy theories doing the rounds last year were the false claims that Gates refused to vaccinate his three children, that he collaborated with Fauci on engineering COVID-19 to reduce the world’s population, and that the vaccines he was funding contained traceable microchips.
“Why would I want to track people?” Gates laughs. “What would I do with that kind of information? The biggest tragedy is that these conspiracy theories hold people back from getting vaccinated or wearing masks.”
In the fight against COVID alone, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested $US1.75 billion: on vaccine R&D, diagnostics and drug treatments for the disease, including $10 million last year to Melbourne’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute towards a trial of an immunity-boosting vaccine called BCG, typically used against tuberculosis, to test whether it might also be effective in preventing serious cases of COVID.
There was a time, less than 20 years ago, when conspiracy theories wilted or perished under a deluge of real-life facts. But in the echo chambers of social media they can not only go viral with lightning speed but have a destabilising afterlife. “Back in the Microsoft days, there were some strong opinions towards the company and me,” Gates explains. “But at least they were grounded in complaints like a) ‘my computer just crashed’ or b) ‘the company is just too powerful’. It was understandable criticism, some of which helped us to become a better company.”
In January, in a sign of his growing exasperation, Gates told Reuters that there are “millions of messages out there” and that the social media giants need to clamp down on misinformation. The irony of a CEO who fronted an antitrust trial in 2001 that accused Microsoft of abusing monopoly power, who now wants the likes of Facebook and YouTube reined in, isn’t missed on Gates. What happens to a democracy, I ask him, when people keep repeating things that are false, and dismissing things that are true? “Well, it’s very troubling, which is why Fauci now has security guards.”
Gates tells me that he and Fauci speak every couple of weeks on the phone. Have they shared notes about the cloud of loopy conspiracy theories swirling around them? “No, neither of us has spoken about it because we don’t have a solution. We mostly confine ourselves to scientific discussion.” About America’s battle with COVID? “Yes, we’ve commiserated with one another about the [previous] US government not taking the pandemic seriously. [In early January] we talked about these variants and how the US didn’t do enough [DNA] sequencing to see the variants.”
I press Gates for a second rating: the Trump administration’s handling of climate change, and this time he laughs. “I feel like a tough grader. For the executive branch and its rhetoric maybe a two; if you include the Congress maybe up to a three, because the R&D budget [on new energy technology] wasn’t allowed to go down and tax credits were renewed.” But even with aggressive and intelligent policies, Gates says we cannot stop climate change completely. All we can do is mitigate temperature increases and avert a potential global catastrophe before the end of the century.
Gates and his family have been riding out the pandemic at their sprawling home, which is on Seattle’s Lake Washington. “I haven’t been into the foundation offices since March last year, yet the administrative part of our work hasn’t been disrupted that much. It’s actually been quite a surprise to me,” he reflects. During his lockdown downtime he’s played bridge, tennis, read, watched the occasional bit of TV (he enjoyed The Crown) and then “whatever the kids want to do” (Gates has three children, Jennifer, 24, Rory, 21 and Phoebe, 18).
Last September, Gates’ father, Bill snr, a former lawyer and philanthropist who until his death was co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, died from Alzheimer’s at the age of 94 (Gates’s mother died in 1994, aged 64). When our parents die, it’s an inevitable reminder of our own mortality. So what of the future?
“We often talk about the foundation running for another 25 to 30 years, which is what it takes to get these infectious diseases either down to very small numbers or completely eradicated,” Gates says. “For myself, I hope I’m able to keep going in my present role into my 70s and 80s, still learning new things.” He pauses for a moment. “I used to think people at 65 didn’t have much to add to the world. I’ve definitely changed my view on that.”
Greg Callaghan is a senior writer and the Associate editor with Good Weekend.