Microsoft founder Bill Gates is calling upon the federal government to establish a new agency dedicated solely to combating global climate change, because “we have only some of the tools we need to eliminate the world’s greenhouse gases.”
Gates wrote in his GatesNotes blog on Wednesday that in order to overcome the enormous challenge of reducing carbon emissions and weening our society off of fossil fuels, “we need to revolutionize the world’s physical economy—and that will take, among other things, a dramatic infusion of ingenuity, funding, and focus from the federal government. No one else has the resources to drive the research we need.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has rightly dominated the headlines for the past nine months, it is not the greatest threat facing humanity.
Throughout 2020, scientists around the globe have published scores of peer-reviewed papers and studies that offer dire warnings about the future habitability of the planet if modern civilization continues its blind consumption of Earth’s precious resources.
Some of the more grim scenarios modeled by researchers indicate that delicate climate systems, such as dramatic rises in average global temperatures, the loss of Arctic and Antartic ice, methane seeps from thawing permafrost, the desalinization and acidification of the world’s oceans, deforestation and habitat loss, as well as mass extinctions may have already crossed critical tipping points, after which runaway feedback loops may be irreversible and unstoppable.
Climate change poses an additional, immediate risk too: more outbreaks, perhaps far deadlier than COVID-19, as untapped areas of wilderness are destroyed and rare, exotic animals are harvested for food.
Part of the problem in tackling the climate crisis, Gates said, is that the federal government lacks the adequate funding necessary to contemplate saving the planet:
On the funding side, we need a fivefold increase—but the increase is only so substantial because we’d be starting from such a low level. The federal government puts around $7 billion a year into clean-energy research, versus more than $35 billion a year into medical research. Putting energy on equal footing with health would be a key first step that would create more than 370,000 jobs while also advancing a clean-energy agenda.
That $35 billion is a drop in the bucket compared to the multi-trillion dollar national annual budget.
The other issue is that there is currently no singular entity dedicated to healing the climate.
“There’s no central office that’s responsible for evaluating and nurturing great ideas,” Gates wrote. “For example, research on clean fuels is managed by offices in the departments of Energy, Transportation, and Defense — and even NASA. Similarly, responsibility for research on energy storage is spread across at least four offices in the Department of Energy.”
Thus, according to Gates, the best way for the United States to position itself to pioneer the migitation of impending ecological cataclyms is to “create a new organization: the National Institutes of Energy Innovation. This the most important thing the U.S. can do to lead the world in innovations that will solve climate change,” the billionaire wrote.
Certainly, the task is daunting, but Gates believes that the framework for such an agency already exists.
“Creating these institutes wouldn’t be an exercise in simply moving boxes around an organizational chart and hoping for a better outcome. We actually have a model for setting things up in a better way, and evidence that it produces results,” said Gates. “That model is the National Institutes of Health.”
The NIH’s résumé of successes is extensive, Gates noted:
The NIH is the largest single funder of biomedical research in the world, and its impact is simply mind-blowing. Scientists supported by the NIH have mapped the human genome, resulting in tests or treatments for dozens of genetic diseases. They have helped cut deaths from heart disease by two thirds in the past 50 years. Since 1980, NIH-supported research has contributed to the discovery of more than 150 new drugs, vaccines, and novel uses for existing drugs. The Gates Foundation’s work in global health simply would not be possible without the countless advances made by the NIH.
Gates continued, outlining the breakthroughs behind NIH’s achievements:
Why is the NIH so successful? It has a clear and specific mission. It has apolitical leaders who let independent researchers follow the science, rather than political staff who change priorities every few years. It’s organized in a way that empowers each of its separate institutes and research centers. And it has strong bipartisan support from policymakers and the public.
The National Institutes of Energy Innovation, Gates added, would be a multi-facted nationwide collaborative effort:
It should be made up of separate institutes that focus on specific areas. An Institute of Transportation Decarbonization, for example, would have a mandate and budget to invent low-carbon fuels for hard-to-decarbonize activities such as aviation and maritime shipping. Unlike the current structure, there would be a single chain of command responsible for meeting this goal. Other institutes would have similar responsibilities and authority for research on energy storage, renewables, carbon capture and management, and so on.See Also
Each institute should be tasked with working on every aspect of getting new products to market, from basic research to commercialization. It’s not enough to develop a new way to store electricity that works in the lab—to have any impact, it has to be practical and affordable in real-world settings. The best way to ensure that is to encourage scientists to start their research with an end-use in mind, and that there’s a system in place to make sure the best ideas make it to market and reach scale.
The institutes should be located all around the country, the way the DOE’s national labs are now. There’s no good reason to limit the benefits of the innovation economy to Washington, D.C., or major research hubs like Boston and San Francisco.
Establishing the National Institutes of Energy and Innovation would also require increasing “demand for new clean-energy tools and lower their prices,” wrote Gates. “As I argued recently, we can accomplish both through innovation and through public policies like tax incentives and clean energy standards.”
In the mean time, Gates urged lawmakers to enact legislation that can get the ball rolling on transforming our energy grid and creating a sustainable future.
“For example, the U.S. House and Senate have taken up legislation (the Clean Energy Innovation and Jobs Act and the American Energy Innovation Act) that would help the federal government move toward a more nimble and focused setup. Neither act has become law yet, but I’m hopeful that in the coming months and years we will see progress on these and other efforts,” said Gates.
Despite the enormity of the obstacles ahead, Gates is optimistic that the problem can be solved.
I do believe we can avoid a climate disaster—if we deploy the clean-energy tools we have now wisely, and if we make big breakthroughs that touch every aspect of our physical economy. Creating the National Institutes of Energy Innovation would put us on the right path.
Climate change is not an abstract threat looming centuries away that can be punted to generations to come. It is the biggest exisential threat to the survival of our species and millions of others who call our pale blue dot home.
The time to act is right now. We just need to summon the collective will.
Forty-seven days until the inauguration.
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Brandon is a political writer for the Hill Reporter specializing in current events, breaking news, and scientific discovery. Brandon holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Indiana University. He lives in New York City.