"As awful as this pandemic is, climate change could be worse." So says billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates in a recent blog post.
"A global crisis has shocked the world. It is causing a tragic number of deaths, making people afraid to leave home, and leading to economic hardship not seen in many generations. Its effects are rippling across the world," Gates wrote. "Obviously, I am talking about COVID-19. But in just a few decades, the same description will fit another global crisis: climate change."
To prevent the deaths, damage and destruction that will come with a warming planet requires innovation, he said.
That has become more clear than ever before because though the pandemic has brought travel and economic activity almost to a standstill, greenhouse gas emissions still haven't been reduced enough to stave off the worst ramifications, Gates said.
"What's remarkable is not how much emissions will go down because of the pandemic, but how little," Gates wrote. "The relatively small decline in emissions this year makes one thing clear: We cannot get to zero emissions simply—or even mostly—by flying and driving less." That's not to say that reducing consumption of fuel that emits carbon gas emissions is not a worthy goal, just that it is not enough, Gates said.
And innovation to fight climate change must start urgently. "Unlike the novel coronavirus, for which I think we'll have a vaccine next year, there is no two-year fix for climate change. It will take decades to develop and deploy all the clean-energy inventions we need," Gates wrote.
To do that, the United States needs to have the equivalent of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for energy innovation, Gates said in another blog post published in December. (The NIH is the medical research agency of the federal government and is an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)
Setting up a National Institutes of Energy Innovation is "the most important thing the U.S. can do to lead the world in innovations that will solve climate change," Gates wrote.
That's because currently, "there's no central office that's responsible for evaluating and nurturing great ideas" in this area, according to Gates. "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."
The federal government also needs to invest more money in science and innovation, Gates said. And he is not alone in making such a suggestion.
"Let's imagine a future pandemic — I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there will certainly be one. And let's imagine that a global competitor, such as China, not only invents the solution, but keeps it to themselves," Schmidt wrote.
"There's a problem. Science funding in the United States is at a low point. In fact, it's the lowest it's been since 1957. Only 0.7% of our [gross domestic product] is spent on federal research and development," Schmidt said. "For context, science funding hasn't been that low since before Sputnik." (Sputnik was the "world's first artificial satellite," launched by the Soviet Union on Oct. 4, 1957.)
Indeed, an analysis from the Washington D.C.-based American Association for the Advancement of Science confirms that federal research and development (R&D) spending as a percent of GDP is 0.7% in the government's fiscal year 2020, and has been trending lower since the 1970s.
The NIH should serve as a model for the proposed National Institutes of Energy Innovation because the NIH has been so successful, according to Gates.
"The NIH is the largest single funder of biomedical research in the world, and its impact is simply mind-blowing," Gates said. "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."
Specifically, Gates suggested the National Institutes of Energy Innovation should be composed of institutes with specific areas of focus, and each group would work to take an idea from the research lab to market. The institutes should be distributed all throughout the U.S., Gates said.
The call is dire, but Gates was hopeful.
"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," Gates wrote in December. "Creating the National Institutes of Energy Innovation would put us on the right path."