Profile in Leadership: Bill Gates and the Future of Humanity

Stephen DeAngelis

August 17, 2020

Everyone is familiar with the phrase, “Put your money where your mouth is.” According to the website Writing Explained, “This expression first appeared in America in the 1930s or 1940s. The idea behind this idiom is that it is easy to talk about doing something, but it is harder to do something about it. … Before this expression existed, there were several others that were similar. These included put your money where your faith is and put your money where your heart is. The idea behind these is similar. If you care about something, you should support it with money or other actions.”[1] Bill Gates (@BillGates), co-founder of Microsoft and well-known philanthropist, is one man who has taken those phrases to heart. Along with his wife, Melinda, he established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and, for years, has been investing smart money into causes the two of them believe will make the world a better place. Two of the many areas in which the Gates’ have invested both time and money are healthcare and environmental protection.

Specifically, Bill Gates has presciently written and cautioned his readers on two potentially existential threats to humanity — both of which we are beginning to deal with today: Global Pandemics and Climate Change. In his writings, some of which I reference below, Gates describes how our globalized and interconnected world is vulnerable to these threats and he describes mitigating steps that can be taken to address them. In today’s political climate, we need to increasingly rely upon citizen and corporate leaders to help form a balanced consensus on ways of addressing these existential threats. Gates is at the forefront of this leadership. He is providing:

• Thought leadership through his writing, speeches, and interviews as well as directing the actions of his foundation. His commentary is sober and reasoned and is based upon the work of experts performing foundational research in a number of related sciences. His approach ensures his commentary is supported by data analytics and expert knowledge.

• Financial leadership by investing billions of dollars in healthcare, environmental and climate science, and education to discover and scale mitigation techniques to address these macro challenges facing humanity. He is also challenging other wealthy individuals to invest in such efforts and philanthropy.

Unlike Gates, many people do not have a platform from which to address these issues, and Gates works hard not to squander the opportunity he has. Rather than trying to draw attention to himself, he chooses to use his wealth to draw attention to causes he believes threaten humanity. I believe his actions and deeds he are helping provide needed global leadership on these threats we all face together.

Bill Gates and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Half a decade ago, an article in the New York Times notes, “Bill Gates warned that the greatest risk to humanity was not nuclear war but an infectious virus that could threaten the lives of millions of people.”[2] You can watch that speech by clicking on this link. Two years later, he wrote, “At a time when world leaders are understandably focused on terrorism and other security threats, another enemy is being largely overlooked — the next epidemic.”[3] Unfortunately, his warnings, for the most part, went unheeded until the novel coronavirus shut down the global economy. In a recent article, Gates wrote, “The coronavirus pandemic pits all of humanity against the virus. The damage to health, wealth, and well-being has already been enormous. This is like a world war, except in this case, we’re all on the same side.”[3] At heart, Gates is an optimist. With the pandemic, he recognized an opportunity had been opened. He wrote, “During World War II, an amazing amount of innovation, including radar, reliable torpedoes, and code-breaking, helped end the war faster. This will be the same with the pandemic.” His sensible approach to dealing with the pandemic involves five categories: treatments, vaccines, testing, contact tracing, and policies for opening up. He concluded, “Without some advances in each of these areas, we cannot return to the business as usual or stop the virus.”

Treatments. According to Gates writes, “Every week, you will be reading about new treatment ideas that are being tried out, but most of them will fail. Still, I am optimistic that some of these treatments will meaningfully reduce the disease burden. … There is a class of drugs called antivirals, which keep the virus from functioning or reproducing.”

Vaccines. “Vaccines have saved more lives than any other tool in history,” Gates insists. “Short of a miracle treatment, which we can’t count on, the only way to return the world to where it was before COVID-19 showed up is a highly effective vaccine that prevents the disease.”

Testing. The importance of testing can’t be overstressed. Gates wrote, “There has been a lot of focus on the number of tests being performed in each country. … But the number of tests alone doesn’t show whether they are being used effectively. You also have to make sure you are prioritizing the testing on the right people.”

Contact tracing. Gates wrote, “I think most countries will use the approach that Germany is using, which requires interviewing everyone who tests positive and using a database to make sure there is follow-up with all the contacts. … This approach relies on the infected person to report their contacts accurately, and also depends on the ability of the health authorities to follow up with everyone.”

Opening up. According to Gates, “It is easy to describe this next phase. It is semi-normal.” Semi-normal means activities involving large crowds are likely to be off the table for quite some time. Gates adds, “The basic principle should be to allow activities that have a large benefit to the economy or human welfare but pose a small risk of infection. … There are no easy answers to these questions. … Schools offer a big benefit and should be a priority. Large sporting and entertainment events probably will not make the cut for a long time; the economic benefit of the live audience doesn’t measure up to the risk of spreading the infection.”

Bill Gates and Climate Change

With the world focused on fighting COVID-19, it seems to be losing focus on another global challenge — one that could be exponentially more catastrophic for humanity: Climate Change. Once again, Bill Gates is trying to take a leadership position. A couple of years ago, he wrote, “Quick: Think of some inventions that help fight climate change. What came to mind first? I bet you thought of solar panels and wind turbines.”[5] He went on to note that investing in renewable sources of energy is not sufficient. He explained, “Making electricity is responsible for only 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions each year. So even if we could generate all the electricity we need without emitting a single molecule of greenhouse gases (which we’re a long way from doing), we would cut total emissions by just a quarter. To prevent the worst effects of climate change, we need to get to zero net greenhouse gas emissions in every sector of the economy within 50 years — and as the IPCC recently found, we need to be on a path to doing it in the next 10 years. That means dealing with electricity, and the other 75% too.” The “other 75%” producing greenhouse gas emissions include: agriculture (24%); manufacturing (21%); transportation (14%); buildings (6%), with the final 10% involving things like the energy it takes to extract oil and gas. Concerning he each of these economic areas he wrote the following:

Electricity. “Although there’s been progress in the renewable energy market, we still need more breakthroughs. For example, wind and solar need zero-carbon backup sources for windless days, long periods of cloudy weather, and nighttime. We also need to make the electric grid a lot more efficient so clean energy can be delivered where it’s needed, when it’s needed.”

Agriculture. “Cattle are a huge source of methane; in fact, if they were a country, they would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases! In addition, deforestation — clearing land for crops, for instance — removes trees that pull CO2 out of the air, and when the trees are burned, they release all their carbon back into the atmosphere.”

Manufacturing. “Look at the plastic, steel, and cement around you. All of it contributed to climate change. Making cement and steel requires lots of energy from fossil fuels, and it involves chemical reactions that release carbon as a byproduct. So even if we could make all the stuff we need with zero-carbon energy, we’d still need to deal with the byproducts.”

Transportation. “Low-emission cars are great, but cars account for a little less than half of transportation-related emissions today — and that share will shrink in the future. More emissions come from airplanes, cargo ships, and trucks. Right now we don’t have practical zero-carbon options for any of these.”

Buildings. Do you live or work in a place with air conditioning? The refrigerant inside your AC unit is a greenhouse gas. In addition, it takes a lot of energy to run air conditioners, heaters, lights, and other appliances. Things like more-efficient windows and insulation would help. This area will be more important over the next few decades as the global population moves to cities. The world’s building stock will double in area by 2060. That’s like adding another New York City every month for 40 years.”

Gates concluded, “I think these grand challenges are a helpful way to think about climate change. They show how energy isn’t just what runs your house and your car. It’s core to nearly every part of your life: the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the home you live in, the products you use. To stop the planet from getting substantially warmer, we need breakthroughs in how we make things, grow food, and move people and goods — not just how we power our homes and cars.”

Gates doesn’t want the world to forget about climate change as a result of the pandemic. Recently, he wrote, “I realize that it’s hard to think about a problem like climate change right now. When disaster strikes, it is human nature to worry only about meeting our most immediate needs, especially when the disaster is as bad as COVID-19. But the fact that dramatically higher temperatures seem far off in the future does not make them any less of a problem—and the only way to avoid the worst possible climate outcomes is to accelerate our efforts now. Even as the world works to stop the novel coronavirus and begin recovering from it, we also need to act now to avoid a climate disaster by building and deploying innovations that will let us eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions. … If you want to understand the kind of damage that climate change will inflict, look at COVID-19 and spread the pain out over a much longer period of time. 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.”[6]

Concluding thoughts

Some people might think Bill Gates efforts are a bit Quixotic. A few years ago, journalist Brandon Keim (@9brandon) asked, “How much can one man — even the world’s richest man — really accomplish in the fight against climate change?”[6] He compared Gates to the Greek mathematician Archimedes, who wrote, “Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the world.” Keim writes, “With due respect to antiquity’s greatest mathematician, ‘moving the world’ seems like a less daunting challenge than keeping it from overheating. And yet, that’s what Bill Gates wants to do.” In my humble opinion, Bill Gates is exactly the type of leader the world needs. Using science and reason, he soberly sees the great challenges facing humanity and searches for solutions. Gates has put his money where his mouth is and has shown the world how a great leader tries to influence others who can help him find solutions to the challenges facing humanity. The world needs a lot more leaders just like him.

Footnotes
[1] Staff, “What Does Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is Mean?
[2] Daisuke Wakabayashi, Davey Alba and Marc Tracy, “Bill Gates, at Odds With Trump on Virus, Becomes a Right-Wing Target,” The New York Times, 17 April 2020.
[3] Bill Gates, “Preparing for the next epidemic: a first step,” GatesNotes, 18 January 2017.
[4] Bill Gates, “The first modern pandemic,” GatesNotes, 23 April 2020.
[5] Bill Gates, “Climate change and the 75% problem,” GatesNotes, 17 October 2018.
[6] Bill Gates, “COVID-19 is awful. Climate change could be worse.” GatesNotes,
[7] Brandon Keim, “Bill Gates vs. Global Warming,” The Atlantic, 23 October 2015.