Addressing the climate emergency
A much-shared fact – backed up by statistics taking into account factors such as education, healthcare and poverty rates – states that now is the best time in human history at which to be born. But, asks Paul, does the escalating global climate emergency throw a spanner in the works?
“Climate is existential and the urgency of addressing it is paramount – but we believe there are things that can be done,” says Mark. The foundation’s approach, he goes on to share, is to combine long-term thinking with acting quickly and practically, directing their philanthropic capital where money isn’t naturally flowing. In the climate space, this tends to mean driving practical resources towards adaptation – developing drought-resilient crops, for example – rather than mitigation.
Progress and Decline in Global Health
As the conversation moves onto the foundation’s ongoing global health and development projects, Paul brings up the notion of a silver bullet: how would Mark define the term, and does he think they even exist in the world of healthcare? “A silver bullet is a general public good”, he responds. “Truly successful vaccines or more robust crops are silver bullets of sorts – they’re transformative – but the asterisk is that simply creating a public good doesn’t mean it gets to those who need it most.” That’s why the foundation prioritises funding efforts to ensure that both new and existing solutions and technologies actually reach those who would benefit most. When it comes to developing these solutions, however, one fix is often not enough, says Mark, citing the fight against malaria as an example. While deaths from malaria have been reduced by half since the early 2000s, we have recently seen a plateau in progress, due in part to mosquitos evolving to be resistant to commonly used insecticides and bed nets, as well as a related threat of the malaria parasite evolving resistance to commonly-used treatments. It’s a problem that requires continuous innovation. As such, the foundation has doubled down on research into new tools for mosquito control, as well as new drug combinations that can outpace the resistance.
A revolution in genetic research
As our ability to understand and manipulate genomes evolves, the world seems to have split into two extreme schools of thought: for and against. How do we balance the two? It turns out the Gates Foundation isn’t theological about any particular approach, instead focusing on the most efficient means to get the best outcome, especially regarding crops grown in the developing world, like cassava. The foundation is funding research into genetic crop modification, as well as into new methods of conventional crop breeding, and working to ensure the poorest communities have access to the same innovations as wealthier nations. They’re also championing the need for regulations to assess the safety and testing of GM crops in the local environments in which they’re grown.
Empowering women for a safer future
As we battle to save the planet from the impact of climate change, attention is increasingly turning towards our growing human footprint. The UN’s official predictions currently estimate that there will be an additional 4 billion people on the planet by 2100, with 1 billion of those in Asia and 3 billion in Africa. However, in Mark’s words, the good news is that “human beings are rational”; if parents know their children will survive into adulthood, they will have less children, as long as they have access to family planning information and products. “It’s fundamentally about advice, access and choice for women”, he says, “as well as economic opportunities for young people.”
Spread the word, change the world
Bill and Melinda Gates famously describe themselves as “impatient optimists” – but how do you inspire and maintain the optimism needed to change the world in our current, highly-fraught global climate? “Optimism feels a little tougher at the moment than it has historically”, Mark admits, “but we’re fixated on data. By nearly every macro measure, the world has been getting steadily better.” The problem, he goes on to say, is that data alone isn’t effective when it comes to spreading a message and getting people on board. “The human mind struggles to deal with data. People don’t believe that change has really happened, which then makes them less likely to support change in the future.” The key to inspiring action is to lead with emotive stories, underpinned by hard facts. “We believe we can make the world better,” Mark says. “We do and we are.” And if you want to help them spread the word, the Gates Foundation is always willing to listen.