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Bill Gates says reducing greenhouse emissions to zero is "bigger than anything humanity has done to date"

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Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates talked with "CBS Evening News" anchor and managing editor Norah O'Donnell about how changing energy, food, transportation and many other forms of production can help reduce greenhouse emissions. The two discussed his new book, "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster."

Video Transcript

NORAH O'DONNELL: Welcome, and thanks for joining us on cbsnews.com. I'm Norah O'Donnell. The overwhelming majority of scientists in the world agree that there is a looming climate disaster. The rising temperature of the globe has been linked to more frequent severe storms. That's why Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, is now determined to get the world to take revolutionary change to save our warming planet in his new book, called "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster." That's his new book. It's out today. Mr. Gates, thank you so much for joining us.

BILL GATES: Great to talk to you.

NORAH O'DONNELL: Good to see you. So why do you believe that climate change is the toughest challenge humanity will ever face?

BILL GATES: Well, most things we do physically, making steel, cement, as we transport ourselves in planes or cars, all of these activities involve emitting greenhouse gases. And so the scale of the change where we've set ourselves a goal of having this all done and getting to zero by 2050, that's very daunting. It's bigger than anything humanity has done to date.

NORAH O'DONNELL: We're going to dig into some of those details and some of the solutions you propose, but what are the consequences if we don't act now?

BILL GATES: Yeah, unfortunately, as you put more and more CO2 in the atmosphere, it stays there for thousands of years, and it drives the temperature up. And that makes those storms really bad. It destroys things like coral reefs. It causes wildfires. The sea levels go up. People who farm won't even be able to work outdoors during the day. And so particularly the poorest countries, you'll have tens of millions of people migrating north, and causing civil wars and great unrest. So from a human point of view or a nature point of view, it's tragic if we can't limit those emissions and get them to stop.

NORAH O'DONNELL: Yeah, that's why we talked about that looming climate disaster, truly disastrous consequences. In fact, and we're all familiar with the fallout from this global pandemic that we've now been living with for almost a year. And you write in the book, "the loss of life and economic misery caused by this pandemic are on par with what will happen regularly if we do not eliminate the world's carbon emissions." You say regularly. You mean 500,000 Americans dead regularly if we don't deal with this climate disaster?

BILL GATES: That's right. You know, the death toll would be even worse near the equator, and the unrest would be global in nature. And sadly, you couldn't just invent a vaccine, one thing, and get that out and bring it to an end, because it's all these different sources. So you've got to start work now to avoid those terrible consequences much later.

NORAH O'DONNELL: One of the things that I learned new from your book, among many, is just how we emit greenhouse gases. And so we made a graphic to show everybody how we do that, including a third of it from how we make things. You mentioned cement, steel, and plastic. Electricity, 27%. 19% growing things, agriculture, plant. 16% transportation, and 7% keeping warm. And combined, all of these create about 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year. You are proposing that we reduce that to zero in 30 years. That seems virtually impossible.

BILL GATES: It's a challenge. Anybody who thinks it's going to be easy or that we can get it done before that date is not looking at the scope of the problem. But it's so important, and we have a young generation that, you know, cares about this, has it as almost a moral cause beyond their own individual success. And so if we orchestrate the right policies and the right innovators, based on my experience, we can succeed.

NORAH O'DONNELL: Yes, but you're suggesting that we have to change every single aspect of our lives. And I think that's why that graphic is so important, because it does touch on every single thing we do every single day. Electricity. I think that's probably the one that most of us-- you know, we flip on the light switch every morning or at night. We have all heard of clean energy. And you write in the book that, if a genie offered you one wish to fight climate change, you'd pick a breakthrough in making electricity. How?

BILL GATES: Well, the good news is that the cost of solar and wind has come down dramatically. We need to vastly accelerate how much we build that out because we'll be using electricity for more things, like the passenger car battery recharge, or you know, instead of natural gas to heat your house, you'll use what's called an electric heat pump. And so the electricity sector is going to have to grow a lot.

We still want it to be reliable. And that's tough because, if you're weather-dependent, you get long periods, like a cold front that we see right now, where the wind and solar is not providing the energy. And so making sure we have enough storage or some non-weather-dependent sources like nuclear so that we're not freezing to death or boiling to death, that I highlight as one of probably the biggest challenge in this whole space.

NORAH O'DONNELL: Yeah, I mean, you brought it up, and that's what we wanted to go and talking about this because the topic of electricity could not be more timely. Look at Texas. That's my home state, where I grew up. More than 4 million customers are without power after this Arctic blast froze wind turbines. The Wall Street Journal today argues that this is the risk of trying to banish fossil fuels. Is what's happening in Texas a sign of the limits of clean energy like wind?

BILL GATES: Basically, no. That is, if you have enough transmission so that, across the country, the wind is blowing somewhere and the sun is shining somewhere, if you have some degree of storage and some sources like nuclear that are not weather-dependent, we can grow the electricity and maintain reliability. Now, it's not going to be easy. This is one where just looking at the price of solar alone doesn't tell you the challenge that we face. But we can get rid of those hydrocarbons for all of our electricity generation and still not freeze to death.

NORAH O'DONNELL: Yeah, but in Texas, which gets a fair portion of their energy from wind turbines, those wind turbines are frozen. And you hear energy officials in the state saying that is part of the problem.

BILL GATES: You're right. The-- a cold front over the Midwest that would shut down most of that wind and solar is the case that we need the nuclear in the storage for. And so we need more sources like offshore wind, which would not shut down at the same time because it's very far away. Our grid is very tiny. In fact, Texas kind of has its own grid. But we need to connect Texas and the rest of the country together with a lot more capacity so that you use that diversity of sources as one of the ways you deal with reliability. And then for the remainder, you're either storing it, which isn't easy, or the nuclear reactors are running 24 hours a day.

NORAH O'DONNELL: So let me ask you, what lessons can we learn about what's happening in Texas? I mean, more than 4 million people without electricity.

BILL GATES: Yeah, well, part of that problem is the transmission lines get knocked down. You know, some of that we can innovate to go underground. People really take for granted how well electricity works. And it is true the coal plants weren't weather-dependent. They had a lot of coal piled up there, so they could keep running. And you know, the new sources don't work that way. So you know, great expertise and open-mindedness to the new approaches, incentives for these companies, that's a sector that we can make completely green, and show the world how to do it.

NORAH O'DONNELL: In fact, Bill, you write in the book that there is only one carbon-free energy source that can reliably deliver power day and night through every season that can work on a large scale. And that is nuclear fission. Is that the future?

BILL GATES: We need to keep innovating there and make it dramatically safer and dramatically cheaper, because unless we get very surprised by some cheap way of storing energy, we will need that on-demand capability. And we have to start from scratch because today's reactors are very complex, and they require operators to do the right thing. And so the US government is funding a number of companies, including one I'm involved with, demonstration reactors that can show this breakthrough level of safety and low cost.

NORAH O'DONNELL: Fossil fuels are cheap. That's why they're used around the world, and they have been for decades. And I know you want to move towards eliminating them. But what happens to the 2.8 million Americans that are working in the oil and gas industry?

BILL GATES: Yeah, fortunately, you know, this is a 30-year transition, and there's lots of clean jobs that can be created in those same locations. In fact, over the next decade, as we're building the new infrastructure and continuing to use the hydrocarbons, the total number of jobs will actually go up. You know, moving hydrogen around the country, which is clean, you know, there'll be great jobs there.

The electricity sector being three times as big, building all those transmission lines, you know, to take in CO2 and putting it into the same type of holes that we've been taking oil out of, we need the skill sets, the complex engineering capabilities, the unions with the trade skills. There may be some places there's dislocation, and so as we budget for the green energy, we have to think about those affected communities, as well as funding the innovation and deployment. You know, we've got to have a strong enough consensus that this becomes more of a bipartisan issue.

NORAH O'DONNELL: But just to level with everybody, it is going to cost more. I mean, that is one of the-- and living in the United States of America and other modern economies, energy is incredibly cheap. It really is. And fossil fuels are incredibly cheap. But in order to change to get more green energy, it is going to cost more. You call them green-- or many people call them green premiums. Why would most Americans agree to pay more? Why would they agree to change if it's going to cost them more?

BILL GATES: Well, let me use the example that we've made the most progress in, which is electric cars. Over the next 15 years, as the cost of the batteries come down, their capacity goes up, you get more charging points, you get quick 15-minute charging, the electric car won't have a green premium. That is, the overall cost won't be worse.

Now, the government's incented this through a tax credit. You know, Tesla and many of the companies are now focusing on making these cars. GM, you know, when they decided that, in 2035, they'll stop making gasoline cars, that's not because they think it's an inferior product. They think the green premium will have gone away in that category.

And so that's what we need to do in all these categories. The transitional costs, like funding those tax credits for wind or electric cars, that's an enlightened policy, but with the right innovation, you get to the point where you can remove it, you know, and put it on to the next area, like energy storage or cement or steel that we still have a very high green premium. The extra cost to be green is way above zero.

NORAH O'DONNELL: I know, and we don't have enough time to get into that, because I-- that's-- that one's the one that really expands the mind, about cement and steel and how much construction is going to happen within the world in the next-- even in the next decade. But I want to ask you, what do you think of Elon Musk's contribution, then?

BILL GATES: Well, he's contributed in many ways. He-- the Tesla is a strong product. It's forced all the car companies to look at, you know, can they match what he's done there. He's also recently put out a challenge for what's called direct air capture that will be a part of the solution. And so, you know, he was willing to entertain wild ideas. And we need, you know, hundreds of Elon Musks. And that's how we'll get this done.

NORAH O'DONNELL: Agriculture. That is one fifth of the cause in that chart that we showed everybody earlier. And you write, "the American-style diet is responsible for almost as many emissions as all the energy Americans use." That takes a minute to really digest that. What should we change in our diet? What have you changed in your diet?

BILL GATES: Well, there are some Tesla equivalents here, people like Beyond Meat and Impossible, that are creating a category where, instead of using a cow, they use proteins made in a factory. And so there's no animal cruelty. There's none of this greenhouse gas release, none of the manure. Now, they're-- like electric cars, they're a pretty small part of the market, you know, 1% or 2%. But when the burger chains offered that as an option, even with a slightly higher price, the demand was very strong.

And so as the volume of that goes up, those costs will come down, and the quality will get to the point where you won't be able to tell the difference. You can still tell, but boy, have they made massive progress. And so you know, we're not telling people that you won't have any hamburgers in the future. You know, for people who want to stop eating meat, that actually is helpful, but I don't think, you know, we'll get to zero by asking everyone to be a vegetarian.

NORAH O'DONNELL: Right. And I know you're investors in both of those companies, Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger, but they do currently still need plants in order to make those foods. And I know you're invested also in a company that will create microbes that ultimately replace that, that is more green, just changing how our diet actually works. You talk to my kids, I have preteens, essentially, and they have learned about how much methane and cow flatulence contributes to climate change. You write in the book, I know probably much to Melinda's dismay, quote, "burping and farting natural gas is a problem that's unique to cows." So that's the question, because kids ask it, does that mean we have to end beef production? Does that mean we end eating steaks and hamburgers?

BILL GATES: Well, there are people who are looking at how you feed the cows, or maybe you capture, you know, the front or the back. And that is worth pursuing. You know, there are people who don't like the animal cruelty, and so now this artificial meat type approach, you know, they like that not just from a greenhouse gas point of view. So those approaches are going to compete with each other.

We-- a lot of Americans will be eating burgers, you know, forever, and so we need a way of making that that's not a lot more expensive and not inferior. And so it's very similar to the electric car learning curve, that a little bit of subsidy, a little bit of consumers driving up the volume because they care about climate will get us to the point where I believe that green premium will also be zero, that you just won't be able to tell the difference.

NORAH O'DONNELL: But I read in one of the interviews you gave in the last week or two, it was just published, you said rich nations should move to 100% synthetic beef.

BILL GATES: Yeah, unless we can make the cow zero emission, which, you know, I'm not sure we can, we do need to make-- to get rid of those emissions. And you know, it's not going to happen overnight. The scale-up and the innovation still required there is quite large. But yes, zero is a very demanding number, and it doesn't allow you to say, well, all but, you know, the 6% that comes from cows.

NORAH O'DONNELL: How do you-- how do you address that? Because I can imagine people at home are saying, I'm not doing that. What he's talking about is crazy. I'm not doing that. We're not going to stop eating hamburgers. We're not going to stop-- I work, you know, I farm cattle, and we're not going to stop doing that. I'm not going to change my way of life because of something that he's talking about is going to happen in 30 years. How do you address that?

BILL GATES: Well, it's the same for gasoline cars. The companies are seeing that they need to change. And the-- so you know, it's phenomenal. GM, which has created, along with Ford, the global car industry, is now saying that, you know, the gasoline engine's days are numbered. So--

NORAH O'DONNELL: And Mary Barra and GM have also recognized that a younger consumer base is also going to want that product.

BILL GATES: Exactly. This movement needs that generation to stay committed to this cause. Without that, we're not going to get there, because it does require ways to drive innovation, and it does, in some cases, require things being a bit more expensive as we get through this transition. And so this is going to be hard. It requires a lot of commitment. We can't go for four years and stop for four years. But the young generation, I think, will demand it.

NORAH O'DONNELL: Because of the advances in technology and many innovations, I have the ability to text directly with many people who watch my show and the evening news, and watching this. And so we asked them what to ask you, and many of them asked the same question, which is what can an everyday citizen do to prevent climate change?

BILL GATES: Well, the most important thing is your political voice. You know, convincing people of both parties, figuring out who they might trust to listen on this topic, that's your biggest role, is to get this consensus about the goal. And then we can debate the tactics to achieve the goal. The second is as a consumer. Your car, your beef, products will be labeled according to their emissions intensity, and you need to show a preference.

Finally, the company you work for. We need corporate America, as they're buying things, as they're building new buildings, as they're having their employees fly around the world, we need them to devote some money to buying green aviation fuel, to doing their building projects and bootstrapping the demand for the green construction products. And so in all three roles, your voice will be critical.

NORAH O'DONNELL: How much, given that former President Trump withdrew from the global agreement known as the Paris Accords, how far did that set us back?

BILL GATES: Well, the last four years, the Congress preserved the energy R&D budget, but ideally, that would have been growing a lot. And we expect President Biden, who has a strong team of climate thinkers, that increasing the R&D budget will be one of many things he's able to do. Because we're the richest country in the world, and because we've emitted far more than any other country historically, when we don't participate, the other countries are like, OK, this isn't going to happen, why should we even try? The innovation power of the US is the greatest of any country. And so other countries, you know, really backed away from ambitious goals. And now, we need to re-energize that. And I'm glad that we're back in, but you know, can we keep it constant.

NORAH O'DONNELL: Yeah, let's talk about which countries need to step up and lead, because you write about this in the book. In the last two decades, China has tripled the amount of coal power it uses. That's more capacity than in the United States, Mexico, and Canada combined. China shows no sign of slowing down.

BILL GATES: Well, China's made a commitment to get to zero by 2060. Now, we'd like them to do that earlier. We'd like them to get rid of those coal plants, not build more coal plants, either in the country or ones that they're financing in other countries. And so that'll be a real relationship issue, is getting China and India, which, of course, you know, almost 40% of people live in those two countries. Without their involvement in a deep way, enabled somewhat by US innovation, we won't achieve the global goal.

NORAH O'DONNELL: I want to, for the climate doubters that may be watching, you lay out examples of how temperatures could rise across the globe if we don't do something and act quickly. One example is Albuquerque, New Mexico. It had 36 days of 90 degrees back in the 1970s. That city could see 114 days over 90 degrees by the end of the century. So Abby from Chicago texted me and said, why do you think so many are unconvinced climate change isn't a problem, and what can we do to help bring people along?

BILL GATES: Well, you can't see CO2. It's completely invisible. And this idea that the heat gets trapped, you know, is kind of a surprising thing, although you do see it in greenhouses, where the sun goes in and then the glass stops it-- the heat from going out, which is why it's got that name. You know, the negative effects, the fact that a few degrees rise causes tornadoes and the sea level to go up, that's not intuitive to people. And of course, it hasn't been in our curriculum.

You know, hopefully it'll motivate this generation to learn more about science to understand these negative effects. So there's a lot of education required. I do think, in the last five years, some of these extreme weather events-- the heat waves, the-- even the cold fronts like we're seeing now-- that's what's helped us get the level of understanding up quite a bit. But you know, there's still maybe 20% or 30% who haven't had that exposure. And figuring out who do they trust, who would they listen to, what are the examples that really bring it home for them in terms of the negative effects in their community.

NORAH O'DONNELL: Let's turn now to the pandemic, because you warned more than a decade ago that we would face a global health crisis like we do today. And I know you have been friends with Dr. Fauci for a long time, and you speak with him regularly. Do we need to create a new vaccine for these Brazilian and South African variants?

BILL GATES: Yeah, the Gates Foundation was funding these studies in South Africa that looked at three of the vaccines and saw that their effectiveness was not as high against that variant. And similar variants are showing up around the world. And so the discussion now is, do we just need to get a super high coverage of the current vaccines, or do we need a third dose that's just the same, or do we need a modified vaccine? And all five of the companies that have the US vaccines are looking at making that modification and adding that in so that people who have already had two shots might need to get a third shot. I think it's reasonably likely that we will have a tuned vaccine, just to make absolutely sure that, as these variants hit the US, that they're not escaping from vaccine protection.

NORAH O'DONNELL: Well, you mentioned you are funding these trials in South Africa and Brazil, and I've read that the data is going to be available later this month. Is that right?

BILL GATES: Yeah, we already were able to give the summary, which is that AstraZeneca, in particular, has a challenge with the variant, and the other two, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax, are slightly less effective, but still effective enough that we absolutely should get them out as fast as we can while we study this idea of tuning the vaccine.

NORAH O'DONNELL: When you say tune, do you mean that you would get a booster in addition to your first two shots, or in your next yearly set of vaccinations, you would get a totally new, just like a flu shot, an influenza shot changes each year?

BILL GATES: Yeah, both of those may be necessary if we can't eradicate it from all humans. If it's still circulating, we might need something that takes this new shape of the spike protein and is more tuned to that. So you might need a third shot this year. And then if it's still out there, we'll be looking at how your antibodies, how your protection goes down over time, and deciding how often you'll need another shot. Probably not yearly, but you know, as long as it's out there, we want, you know, as many Americans as possible not to be spreading it to each other.

NORAH O'DONNELL: One of the things I'm most concerned about is misinformation that exists out there. Trusted news sources, that's why we do what we do every day at CBS News. I know your family's concerned about it, too. Your daughter, Jennifer, is a 24-year-old medical student. She got the vaccine. And she poked fun at conspiracy theories that baselessly claim that these vaccines plant microchips in people's brains, and wrote, "sadly, the vaccine did not implant my genius father into my brain." But let me ask you, did you see it? Did you think it was funny?

BILL GATES: I didn't see it before she did it, but I thought it was wonderful. It was very nice of her.

NORAH O'DONNELL: I have to ask you, are you concerned about vaccine hesitancy? And let me ask you this. We now know, because of the additional 200 million doses that the Biden administration has secured, do you think we will reach herd immunity by July?

BILL GATES: Yeah, so there's three constraints-- there's the supply, there's the logistics, and there's the demand. And in the April, May timeframe, the supply and logistics will probably be good enough that we'll become demand-limited. So your question is a super good question.

Will the crazy negative rumors about the vaccine create enough hesitancy, along with the people who there are some who shouldn't take the vaccine because of immune deficiencies, will that keep us below this herd level, where you block all the immunity? And I think if we get trusted voices, particularly in minority communities, setting an example and speaking out about it, we can avoid that. But it's at risk. Right now, there are pockets, including the people who need it the most, where the resistance levels are very high.

NORAH O'DONNELL: I just have two more questions for you. I do want to ask you about the SolarWinds hack, the cyber attack that infiltrated the federal government, it being traced back to Russia. Microsoft's president, Brad Smith, was on "60 Minutes." He called it the largest and most sophisticated attack the world has ever seen. How vulnerable do you think we are to a destructive cyber attack, and how much does that concern you?

BILL GATES: Well, it's a huge issue. I'm no longer directly involved in it, but you know, in a way, this was a wake-up call that our defenses aren't as good as we'd like. And you know, there's a particular pattern that we've got to block in the future. So I'm glad that, you know, Microsoft is being open about it. All the companies really should do better to share information about what's gone on, because this could shut down lots of critical infrastructure in the future.

NORAH O'DONNELL: Final question. You've spoken with President Biden since he's moved into the White House and taken charge. Do you talk about climate change? Do you talk about the pandemic? What do you talk about?

BILL GATES: Those are the big issues. When my wife Melinda's on the phone, some of the gender-related things about sick leave come up, as well. But you know, those three topics, we had great conversations. He's made ending this pandemic, being ready for the next one right up there in the top four, along with climate and equity. And so, you know, he's off to a good start. These are hard problems to solve, but you know, now we have smart people with the right goals in mind.

NORAH O'DONNELL: How often do you talk?

BILL GATES: A lot of the discussions now have shifted to the cabinet-level people. I was talking today with John Kerry, who's the climate envoy, you know, which is great. And so things are becoming concrete enough. You know, we'll probably touch base every two or three months just to highlight where, you know, we see very good progress or where we think things could move faster. You know, he's good at picking smart people and delegating. That's you part of the-- his strength.

NORAH O'DONNELL: Bill Gates, such a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

BILL GATES: Thank you.

NORAH O'DONNELL: And Bill Gates' book, "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster," is out today. Thank you.