Bill Gates on Climate Change and Adapting to Warmer World
Adapted from “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need,” publishing on February 16 from Alfred A. Knopf.
We need to get to zero emissions, and we’re going to need a lot of innovation to do it. But innovation doesn’t happen overnight, and it will take decades for green products to reach a big enough scale to make a significant difference.
In the meantime, people all over the world, at every income level, are already being affected in one way or another by climate change. Just about everyone who’s alive now will have to adapt to a warmer world. As sea levels and floodplains change, we’ll need to rethink where we put homes and businesses. We’ll need to shore up power grids, seaports, and bridges. We’ll need to plant more mangrove forests and improve our early-warning systems for storms.
I want to tell you about the people I think of first when I think about who will suffer the most from a climate disaster and who deserve the most help adapting to it. They don’t have much in the way of power grids, seaports, or bridges to worry about. They’re the low-income people I meet through my work on global health and development, and for them climate change could have the worst consequences of all. And their stories capture the complexity of fighting poverty and climate change at the same time.
For example, in 2009, I met the Talam family—Laban, Miriam, and their three children—when I was in Kenya to learn about the lives of farmers with less than four acres of land (or, as they’re known in development parlance, smallholder farmers). I visited their farm a few miles down a dirt road outside Eldoret, one of the fastest-growing cities in Kenya. The Talams didn’t have much, just a few round mud huts with thatched roofs and an animal pen, and their farm covered about two acres, smaller than a baseball field. But what was happening on this small plot of land was drawing hundreds of farmers from miles around to learn what the owners were doing and how they could do it themselves.
Laban and Miriam greeted me at their front gate and started telling me their story. Two years before, they had been smallholder farmers practicing subsistence farming. Like most of their neighbors, they had been desperately poor. They grew corn (in Kenya, as in many places around the world, it’s known as maize) and other vegetables, some to eat themselves and the rest to sell at market. Laban would work odd jobs to make ends meet. To earn more income, he had bought a cow, which the couple would milk twice a day: They’d sell the morning milk to a local trader to get a small amount of cash, and they’d save the evening milk for themselves and their children. In all, the cow would produce three liters of milk per day; that’s less than a gallon each day to sell and split among a family of five.
Explore dynamic updates of the earth’s key data points
By the time I met them, life for the Talams had improved dramatically. They now had four cows, which were producing 26 liters of milk every day. They sold 20 liters a day and kept six liters for themselves. Their cows earned them nearly $4 per day, which in that part of Kenya was enough to allow them to rebuild their home, grow pineapples for export, and send their children to school.
The turning point for them, they said, was the opening of a nearby milk-chilling plant. The Talams and other area farmers would take their raw milk to the plant, where it would be kept cold and eventually be transported nationwide, fetching higher prices than it could locally. The plant also served as a kind of training hub. Local dairy farmers could go there to learn how to raise healthier and more productive livestock, get vaccines for their cows, and even have the milk tested for contaminants to make sure it would bring a good price. If it didn’t measure up, they got tips on how to improve the quality.
In Kenya, where the Talams live, roughly one-third of the population works in agriculture. Worldwide, there are 500 million smallholder farms, and about two-thirds of people in poverty work in agriculture. Yet despite their large numbers, smallholder farmers are responsible for remarkably few greenhouse gas emissions, because they can’t afford to use nearly as many products and services that involve fossil fuels. The typical Kenyan produces 55 times less carbon dioxide than an American, and rural farmers like the Talams produce even less.
But the Talams bought more cattle, and cattle contribute more to climate change than any other livestock.
In that respect, the Talams weren’t unusual. For many poor farmers, earning more money is a chance to invest in high-value assets, including chickens, goats, and cows—animals that provide good sources of protein and a way to bring in extra cash by selling milk and eggs. It’s a sensible decision, and anyone who cares about reducing poverty would hesitate to tell them not to make it. That’s the conundrum: As people rise up the income ladder, they do more things that cause emissions. This is why we need innovations—so the poor can improve their lives without making climate change even worse.
The cruel injustice is that even though the world’s poor are doing essentially nothing to cause climate change, they’re going to suffer the most from it. The climate is changing in ways that will be problematic for relatively well-off farmers in America and Europe, but potentially deadly for low-income ones in Africa and Asia.
As the climate gets warmer, droughts and floods will become more frequent, wiping out harvests more often. Livestock eat less and produce less meat and milk. The air and soil lose moisture, leaving less water available for plants; in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, tens of millions of acres of farmland will become substantially drier. Crop-eating pests are already infesting more acreage as they find more hospitable environments to live in. The growing season will also get shorter; at 4 degrees Celsius of warming, most of sub-Saharan Africa could see it shrink by 20% or more.
When you’re already living on the edge, any one of these changes could be disastrous. If you don’t have any money saved up and your crops die off, you can’t go buy more seeds; you’re just wiped out. What’s more, all of these problems will make food far more expensive for those who can least afford it. Because of climate change, prices will skyrocket for hundreds of millions of people who already spend more than half of their incomes on food.
As food becomes less available, an already enormous inequity between rich and poor will get even worse. Today, a child born in Chad is 50 times more likely to die before her fifth birthday than a child born in Finland. With growing food scarcity, more kids won’t get all the nutrients they need, weakening their bodies’ natural defenses and making them much more likely to die of diarrhea, malaria, or pneumonia. One study found that the number of additional heat-related deaths could approach 10 million a year by the end of the century (that’s roughly as many people as are killed by all infectious diseases today), with a large majority of the deaths occurring in poor countries. And the children who don’t die will be far more likely to suffer from stunting—that is, to not fully develop physically or mentally.
In the end, the worst impact of climate change in poor countries will be to make health worse—to raise the rates of malnutrition and death. So we need to help the poorest improve their health. I see two ways to do that.
One, we need to raise the odds that malnourished children will survive. That means improving primary health-care systems, doubling down on malaria prevention, and continuing to provide vaccines for conditions like diarrhea and pneumonia. Although the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly makes all these things harder, the world knows a lot about how to do them well; the vaccine program known as GAVI, which has prevented 13 million deaths since 2000, ranks as one of humanity’s greatest achievements. (The Gates Foundation’s contribution to this global undertaking is one of our proudest accomplishments.) We can’t let climate change undo this progress. In fact, we need to accelerate it, developing vaccines for other diseases, including HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis, and getting them to everyone who needs them.
Then—in addition to saving the lives of malnourished children—we need to make sure that fewer children are malnourished in the first place. With population growth, the demand for food will likely double or triple in regions where most of the world’s poor live. So we need to help poor farmers grow more of it, even when droughts and floods strike.
I spend a lot of time with people who oversee the foreign aid budgets in rich-world countries. Even some very well-intentioned ones have told me, “We used to fund vaccines. Now we need to make our aid budget climate-sensitive”—by which they mean helping Africa lower its greenhouse gas emissions.
I tell them, “Please don’t take away vaccine money and put it into electric cars. Africa is responsible for only about 2% of all global emissions. What you really should be funding there is adaptation. The best way we can help the poor adapt to climate change is to make sure they’re healthy enough to survive it. And to thrive despite it.”
You’ve probably never heard of CGIAR. Neither had I, until a decade or so ago, when I started studying the problems faced by farmers in poor countries. From what I’ve seen, no other organization has done more than CGIAR to ensure that families—especially the poorest—have nutritious food to eat. And no other organization is in a better position to create the innovations that will help poor farmers adapt to climate change in the years ahead.
CGIAR is the world’s largest agricultural research group: In short, it helps create better plants and better animal genetics. It was at a CGIAR lab in Mexico that Norman Borlaug did his groundbreaking work on wheat, sparking the Green Revolution. Other CGIAR researchers, inspired by Borlaug’s example, developed similarly high-yielding, disease-resistant rice, and in the following years the group’s work on livestock, potatoes, and maize has helped reduce poverty and improve nutrition.
CGIAR will be indispensable in creating new climate-smart crops and livestock for the world’s poor farmers. One of my favorite examples is its work on drought-tolerant maize.
Although maize yields in sub-Saharan Africa are lower than anywhere else in the world, more than 200 million households there still depend on this crop for their livelihoods. And as weather patterns have become more erratic, farmers are at greater risk of having smaller maize harvests, and sometimes no harvest at all.
So experts at CGIAR developed dozens of new maize varieties that could withstand drought conditions, each adapted to grow in specific regions of Africa. At first, many smallholder farmers were afraid to try new crop varieties. Understandably so. If you’re eking out a living, you won’t be eager to take a risk on seeds you’ve never planted before, because if they die, you have nothing to fall back on. But as experts worked with local farmers and seed dealers to explain the benefits of these new varieties, more and more people adopted them.
The results have been life changing for many families. In Zimbabwe, for example, farmers in drought-stricken areas who used drought-tolerant maize were able to harvest up to 600 more kilograms of maize per hectare than farmers who used conventional varieties. (That’s 500 more pounds per acre, producing enough to feed a family of six for nine months.) For farming families who chose to sell their harvests, it was enough extra cash to send their children to school and meet other household needs. CGIAR-affiliated experts have gone on to develop other maize varieties that grow well in poor soils; resist diseases, pests, or weeds; raise crop yields by up to 30%; and help fight malnutrition.
And it’s not just maize. Thanks to CGIAR’s efforts, new types of rice that can tolerate drought are spreading rapidly in India, where climate change is causing more dry spells during the rainy season. They’ve also developed a type of rice—cleverly nicknamed “scuba” rice—that can survive underwater for two weeks. Generally, rice plants respond to flooding by stretching out their leaves to escape the water; if they’re underwater long enough, they expend all their energy trying to escape, and they essentially die of exhaustion. Scuba rice doesn’t have that problem: It’s got a gene called SUB1 that kicks in during a flood, making the plant dormant—so it stops stretching—until the waters recede.
CGIAR isn’t just focused on new seeds. Its scientists have also created a smartphone app that allows farmers to use the camera on their phones to identify specific pests and diseases attacking cassava, an important cash crop in Africa. It’s also created programs for using drones and ground sensors to help farmers determine how much water and fertilizer their crops need.
Poor farmers need more advances like these, but to provide them, CGIAR and other agricultural researchers will need more money. Agricultural research is chronically underfunded. In fact, doubling CGIAR’s funding so it can reach more farmers is one of the main recommendations by the Global Commission on Adaptation, which I lead along with the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the former World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is money well spent: Every dollar invested in CGIAR’s research generates about $6 in benefits. Warren Buffett would give his right arm for an investment that paid off six to one, and saved lives in the process.
Aside from helping smallholder farmers raise their crop yields, our commission on adaptation makes three other recommendations related to agriculture:
Help farmers manage the risks from more chaotic weather. For example, governments can help farmers grow a wider variety of crops and livestock so one setback doesn’t wipe them out. Governments should also explore strengthening social-security systems and arranging for weather-based agriculture insurance that helps farmers recover their losses.
Focus on the most vulnerable people. Women aren’t the only group of vulnerable people, but they are the biggest. For all sorts of reasons—cultural, political, economic—female farmers have it even harder than men. They may not be able to secure land rights, for example, or have equal access to water, or get financing to buy fertilizer, or even be able to get a weather forecast. So we need to do things like promoting women’s property rights and targeting technical advice specifically for them. The payoff could be dramatic: One study by a UN agency found that if women had the same access to resources as men, they could grow 20% to 30% more food on their farms and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12% to 17%.
Factor climate change into policy decisions. Very little money is funneled into helping farmers adapt; only a tiny sliver of the $500 billion that governments spent on agriculture between 2014 and 2016 was directed at activities that will soften the blow of climate change for the poor. Governments should be coming up with policies and incentives to help farmers reduce their emissions while growing more food at the same time.
Broadly speaking, you can think of adaptation in three stages. The first involves reducing the risks posed by climate change, through steps like climate-proofing buildings and other infrastructure, protecting wetlands as a bulwark against flooding, and—when necessary—encouraging people to relocate permanently from areas that are no longer livable.
Next is preparing for and responding to emergencies. We need to keep improving weather forecasts and early-warning systems for getting out information about storms. And when disaster does strike, we need well-equipped and well-trained teams of first responders and a system in place for handling temporary evacuations.
Finally, after a disaster, there’s the recovery period. We’ll need to plan for services for people who’ve been displaced—services like health care and education—as well as insurance that helps people at all income levels rebuild and standards to ensure that whatever gets rebuilt is more climate-proof than what was there before.
Here are four of the big headlines on adaptation:
Cities need to change the way they grow. Urban areas are home to more than half the people on earth—a proportion that will rise in the years ahead—and they’re responsible for more than three-quarters of the world’s economy. As they expand, many of the world’s fast-growing cities end up building over floodplains, forests, and wetlands that could absorb rising waters during a storm or hold reservoirs of water during a drought.
All cities will be affected by climate change, but coastal cities will have the worst problems. Hundreds of millions of people could be forced from their homes as sea levels rise and storm surges get worse. By the middle of this century, the cost of climate change to all coastal cities could exceed $1 trillion . . . each year. To say that this will exacerbate the problems most cities are already struggling with—poverty, homelessness, health care, education—would be an understatement.
What does climate-proofing a city look like? For one thing, city planners need the latest data on climate risks and projections from computer models that predict the impact of climate change. (Today, many city leaders in the developing world don’t have even basic maps to indicate which areas of town are most prone to floods.) Armed with the latest information, they can make better decisions about how to plan for neighborhoods and industrial centers, build or expand seawalls, protect themselves from the storms that are getting more violent, shore up storm-water drainage systems, and raise wharves so they stay above rising tides.
To get really specific: If you’re building a bridge across the local river, should you make it 12 feet tall or 18 feet tall? The taller one will be more expensive in the short run, but if you know the odds are high that a massive flood will come along in the next decade, it could be the smarter choice. You’d rather build a more expensive bridge once than a cheaper bridge twice.
And it’s not just about renovating the infrastructure that cities already have; climate change is also going to force us to consider entirely new needs. For example, cities with extremely hot days and a lot of residents who can’t afford air-conditioning will need to create cooling centers—facilities where people can go to escape the heat. Unfortunately, using more air conditioners also means we’ll be emitting more greenhouse gases, which is another reason why the advances in cooling.
We should shore up our natural defenses. Forests store and regulate water. Wetlands prevent floods and provide water for farmers and cities. Coral reefs are home to the fish that coastal communities depend on for food. But these and other natural defenses against climate change are rapidly disappearing. Nearly nine million acres of old-growth forest were destroyed in 2018 alone, and when—as is likely—we hit 2 degrees Celsius of warming, most of the coral reefs in the world will die off.
On the other hand, restoring ecosystems has a huge payoff. Water utilities in the world’s largest cities could save $890 million a year by restoring forests and watersheds. Many countries are already leading the way: In Niger, one local reforestation effort led by farmers has boosted crop yields, increased tree cover, and cut the amount of time women spend gathering firewood from three hours a day to 30 minutes. China has identified about a quarter of its landmass as critical natural assets where it’ll make a priority of promoting conservation and preserving the ecosystem. Mexico is protecting a third of its river basins to preserve the water supply for 45 million people.
If we can build on these examples, spreading awareness about how much ecosystems matter and helping more countries follow suit, we’ll gain the benefits of a natural defense against climate change.
Here’s some more low-hanging fruit, so to speak: mangrove forests. Mangroves are short trees that grow along coastlines, having adapted to life in salt water; they reduce storm surges, prevent coastal flooding, and protect fish habitats. All told, mangroves help the world avoid some $80 billion a year in losses from floods, and they save billions more in other ways. Planting mangroves is much cheaper than building breakwaters, and the trees also improve the water quality. They’re a great investment.
We’re going to need more drinking water than we can supply. As lakes and aquifers shrink or get polluted, it’s getting harder to provide potable water to everyone who needs it. Most of the world’s megacities already face severe shortages, and if nothing changes, by mid-century the number of people who can’t get enough decent water at least once a month will rise by more than a third, to over 5 billion people.
Technology holds out some promise here. We already know how to take the salt out of seawater and make it drinkable, but the process takes a lot of energy, as does moving the water from the ocean to the desalination facility and then from the facility to whoever needs it. (This means that, like so many things, the water problem is ultimately an energy problem: With enough cheap, clean energy, we can make all the potable water we’ll ever need.)
One clever idea I’m watching closely involves taking water out of the air. It’s basically a solar-powered dehumidifier with an advanced filtering system so you don’t drink air pollution. This system is available now, but it costs thousands of dollars, far too expensive for the world’s poor, who will suffer the most from water shortages.
Until an idea like that becomes affordable, we need to take practical steps—incentives that will drive the demand for water down and efforts that will drive the supply up. That includes everything from reclaiming wastewater to just-in-time irrigation, a system that reduces water use dramatically while raising farmers’ yields.
Finally, to fund adaptation projects, we need to unlock new money. I’m talking not about foreign aid for developing countries— although we’ll need that too—but about how public money can attract private investors to get behind adaptation projects.
Here’s the problem we need to overcome: People pay the costs of adaptation up front, but its economic benefits may not come for years down the road. For example, you can flood-proof your business now, but it may not get hit by a big deluge for 10 or 20 years. And your flood-proofing isn’t going to generate bankable cash flows; customers aren’t going to pay extra for your products because you made sure sewage won’t back up into your basement during a flood. So banks will be reluctant to loan you the money for your project, or they’ll charge you a higher interest rate. Either way, you have to absorb some cost yourself, in which case you may simply decide not to do it.
Take that single example and multiply it across an entire city, state, or country, and you’ll see why the public has to play a role in both financing adaptation projects and drawing in the private sector as well. We need to make adaptation an attractive investment.
That starts with finding ways for public and private financial markets to take the risks of climate change into account and to price these risks accordingly. Some governments and companies already screen their projects for climate risks; all of them should. Governments can also put more resources into adaptation, setting goals for how much they’ll invest over time and adopting policies that remove some of the risk for private investors. As the rewards of adaptation projects become more clear, private investment should grow.
You may be wondering how much all this would cost. There’s no way to put a price tag on everything the world needs to do to adapt to climate change. But the commission I’m involved with priced out spending in five key areas (creating early-warning systems, building climate-resilient infrastructure, raising crop yields, managing water, and protecting mangroves) and found that investing $1.8 trillion between 2020 and 2030 would return more than $7 trillion in benefits. To put that in perspective, spread out over a decade, it’s about 0.2% of the world’s GDP, with a nearly fourfold return on investment.
You can measure those benefits in terms of bad things that don’t happen: civil wars that don’t break out over water rights, farmers who don’t get wiped out by a drought or flood, cities that don’t get destroyed by hurricanes, waves of people who don’t become climate refugees. Or you can measure them in terms of good things that do happen: children who grow up with the nutrients they need, families who escape poverty and join the global middle class, businesses and cities and countries that thrive even as the climate gets hotter.
Whichever way you think about it, the economic case is clear, and so is the moral case. Extreme poverty has plummeted in the past quarter century, from 36% of the world’s population in 1990 to 10% in 2015—although COVID-19 was a huge setback that undid a great deal of progress. Climate change could erase even more of these gains, increasing the number of people living in extreme poverty by 13%.
Those of us who have done the most to cause this problem should help the rest of the world survive it. We owe them that much.
Adapted from a new book by Bill Gates, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need,” publishing on February 16 from Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2021 by Bill Gates.